The Time to Die

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

On a quick guess, of the myriad of programs, initiatives, regulations and laws in Pennsylvania’s $28 billion budget which is the most ineffective, rarely used and total waste of money?The answer is a real killer.The most rarely used of all is the death penalty.

On the state’s death row there are 220 prisoners in isolation, most of them guilty of a single murder.The crime that the great detective Holmes called a ‘crime of wit.’That means rarely planned, committed on emotion and taking none of the calculations necessary to successfully rob a bank or burglarize a home.Investigators report that murder is largely committed on the spur of the moment.Yet the momentous act of taking a life relates to the state’s ultimate penalty: death.In this state by lethal injection.

Lethal injection is considered ‘humane’ execution.The injection of a toxic cocktail that gradually chokes the heart. Historically it follows a long list of humane forms of execution.From the Roman days of crucifixion, to beheading in the 6thcentury, hanging – the longest humane form of state ordered death – from the 7thcentury to the 20th, then followed in the last century by the humane scorching of the electric chair and then the gas chamber.

But is the death penalty a deterrent to crime?Doesn’t appear to be, especially since the state has only carried it out 3 times since it was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976.Meanwhile a typical prisoner in the Commonwealth’s penal system costs about $20,000 a year to house, the isolation of death row costs about $13,000 more per prisoner.That translates into roughly $7.2 million into something the state and its courts have no commitment to.

For a couple of good reasons.Since the death penalty was reinstated, across the nation 139 people have been exonerated of their crimes,including 6 in Pennsylvania.The death penalty is expensive.In neighboring Maryland from 1976 through 2008 the Urban Institute estimates that death penalty cases cost that state some $186 million about $37 million for each of the state’s 5 executions.These costs include lawyers, appeals, research, expert witnesses and, of course, incarceration.

New Mexico’s aggressive death sentence Governor Bill Richardson signed life without parole legislation ending that state’s ultimate power last year as did former Governor Corzine of New Jersey.

Senator Daylin Leach has introduced legislation to end the death penalty in Pennsylvania.Governor Rendell, a former prosecutor, has said even if it is passed he will veto it.Rendell faces a $450 million shortfall in this year’s budget.Gaining $7.2 million in that scheme probably doesn’t mean much.But if he would change his mind someday he could erase the potential for the state to make horrific mistakes.It’s time for the death penalty to die.Six lives saved from erroneous execution, is six mistakes too many.

Albert Paschall is Senior Fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, a non-profit education foundation with offices in Harrisburg and King Of Prussia. Somedays is syndicated to leading newspapers and radio stations through out Pennsylvania.