OPINION: "Kill the Death Penalty"

The editor of the editorial page of the Palm Beach Post recently called for an end to the death penalty in Florida.  Citing DPIC's recent report on the costs of the death penalty, Randy Schultz notes that, "Every objective study shows that life imprisonment costs much less than sentencing someone to death."  "Money," he writes, "drives the new debate in Florida about criminal justice."  In 2009, the state legislature declined the $3 billion for prisons the state's Department of Corrections needed to continue current practices. The death penalty should face the same fiscal scrutiny.  Schultz also states that Florida sees little in return for the money it puts into capital punishment.  He calls Florida's death row a "fraud," and notes that,  "Almost all those on Death Row will die of old age or disease."  Read the full opinion piece below.

Kill the death penalty

Even if Florida gets smarter on crime, will Florida get smart enough to abolish the death penalty?

Business groups have joined the departments of Corrections, Juvenile Justice and Children and Families in calling for major changes in how Florida administers criminal justice. They want more rehabilitation behind bars and more support for newly released inmates. They want diversion programs for addicts who commit crimes because of their dependency. They want prison reserved for the dangerous, not the annoying.

All of it makes sense, so it may be lost on a Legislature that slurps up federal stimulus money while denouncing the federal stimulus program. Landmark reform, too, would mean touching the untouchable issue of capital punishment.

Money drives the new debate in Florida about criminal justice. This year, the Legislature actually refused to approve the $3 billion for prisons the Department of Corrections said would be necessary if current practices continued. Florida, legislators decided, couldn't be that tough on crime. Money also drives the new look nationwide at the death penalty. In October, the Death Penalty Information Center released "Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty at a Time of Economic Crisis." The center's philosophy leans toward abolition of capital punishment. Still, the study contains hard numbers to show that while 65 percent of the respondents to an October Gallup poll support the death penalty, the real-life numbers are running the other way.

During the 1990s, states were handing down roughly 300 death sentences a year. Now, it's about 115. Between 1976, when the Supreme Court allowed executions to resume, and 2009, 41 states executed no one. Executions nationwide peaked at 98 a decade ago. This year, there have been 52.

One recent development helps to explain the dichotomy. More states have created a sentence of life without possibility of parole — as opposed to just life in prison — as an alternative to the death penalty. Florida made the change in 1994, and death sentences have been trending down ever since. A 2006 Gallup poll showed that, given this choice, 47 percent preferred capital punishment while 48 favored life without parole.

Florida offers the best explanation for that caution. No state has released more Death Row inmates (23) because of exoneration. Another died of cancer before he could be released. No juror wants to worry that he or she might have sent an innocent person to his death.

On top of that, Florida's Death Row is a fraud. In this state, 390 people are under sentence of death — 389 men and one woman. Florida, though, has executed just 68 people since 1979, when John Spenkelink was electrocuted. Since 1985, Florida has executed four or more people in a year just three times. Almost all those on Death Row will die of old age or disease.

Every objective study shows that life imprisonment costs much less than sentencing someone to death, because of the costs for lawyers who handle specialized, complex death penalty appeals. To Jeb Bush, the answer was to limit the number of years during which an inmate could appeal. The Florida Supreme Court shot him down. Good thing. Under Mr. Bush's 10-year limit, Florida would have killed people before they could be exonerated.

It's one thing to say that Danny Rolling, sadistic slayer of five college students in the Gainesville area 19 years ago, should be executed. There was no question of guilt, and no messy questions of racial fairness. As the Death Penalty Information Center notes, though, 80 percent of victims in cases where the killer was executed were white. Nationally, only 50 percent of murder victims are white.

Deterrence? Police chiefs don't consider the death penalty a deterrent. And the South, which has the highest rate of execution, also has the highest murder rate.

Politically, though, capital punishment retains its visceral, eye-for-an-eye appeal. Thirty-five states still have it on the books, down from 38 at the start of this decade. It's hard to be smart about something that many people can't think clearly about.

(R. Schultz, "Kill the death penalty," The Palm Beach Post, December 20, 2009).  See Costs and New Voices.