We look for signs of hope anywhere we can find them, and we've found one uplifting sign recently—New Jersey's ban on the death penalty. As we look forward to 2008, we're hopeful that New Jersey's enlightened move will lead more states to abolish their death penalties. It would create a rather nice paradigm, we think, coinciding with the end of the most shameful presidency in modern history, one that launched from the most bloodthirsty state in the country, in terms of state-sanctioned murderous revenge.
We acknowledge that public support for the death penalty remains high. A Gallup poll conducted last October showed that 69 percent of Americans responded “Yes” when asked, “Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?” (Other polls we've seen place support for the death penalty in a range of 62 percent to 67 percent.) In the 2007 Gallup poll, respondents weren't asked, as they had been in the past, what they think about the alternative of life in prison without the possibility of parole. When they have been asked, support for the death penalty has fallen into a range of 47 percent to 54 percent. So, really, we Americans are split down the middle on capital punishment when a clear alternative is presented.
We commend New Jersey's lawmakers, who chose the alternative, life without parole, as the punishment for the most heinous violent crimes.
There's no doubt that if emotion were extricated from the debate over which is the smarter form of justice, more Americans would choose life without parole over death. That's why it's too bad that emotional appeals play such a preeminent role during such public conversations, exploited by ambitious politicians and, understandably, victims' families. The debate over whether or not the death penalty is not an effective crime deterrent will carry on as long as it is practiced. Recent long-term studies by economists suggesting that murder rates have dropped as the frequency of executions have increased have impressed some scholars and been assailed by others. Granted, we're opposed to the practice on numerous levels, so we're not exactly objective, but in our view, it seems impossible to know what deters a potential murderer. It's hard to fathom too many of those capable of the sort of murder that yields a death sentence stopping and considering recent fluctuations in the rate of executions. For that to have an effect, it seems we'd have to execute a lot more people, and at a much faster clip, than our justice system will allow.
It's consideration of our justice system that leads us to the most convincing argument against the death penalty.
Justice is imperfect. Death row is populated disproportionately by black and poor inmates, who too often don't have access to the same quality of legal representation than their white and better-funded counterparts. But even more simply, there's always a chance that an executed prisoner was not guilty.
And then there's the cost. This should be common knowledge by now: A death sentence is far more expensive than lifetime imprisonment. According to the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission, it costs $72,602 per year to house and feed each prisoner on death row, while other prisoners cost the state $40,121 apiece. And a 2005 Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that it costs California taxpayers roughly $90,000 more per year to house one prisoner on death row than one person in the general prison population. There are 660 prisoners on California's death row, so that comes to an unnecessary price tag of $59.4 million per year, just in California alone.
While a de facto moratorium is currently in place, it will likely end this spring, when the U.S. Supreme Court considers a procedural matter—executions are on hold pending the high court's ruling on how state judges should handle claims of cruel and unusual punishment related to the second and third drugs administered as part of the standard three-ingredient lethal-injection cocktail.
According to Amnesty International, 1,591 people were known to have been executed worldwide, and 91 percent of those killings occurred in China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan and the good ol' U.S. of A.
We hope that in 2008, lawmakers in more states follow New Jersey's lead and launch efforts to ban the death penalty—and get us out of that club.