Less Support for the Death Penalty
I have written on elements of the death penalty previously
“And what about the cost of housing them? Execution could be cheaper if we were to subvert the rights of prisoners during trial and on appeal to state and federal courts. A 2003 legislative audit in Kansas revealed total costs for the death penalty at 70% more than non-death sentence cases with a median cost of $1.26 million as opposed to $.74 million. Since 1995 when the death sentence was reinstated in NY, the cost for each of 5 people condemned, not executed yet, was ~$23 million per person for a total of $165 million. The Comptroller for the state of Tennessee audit revealed that death sentences cases increased costs by 48%. These are costs associated with the trial up till and including sentencing and not taking into account appeals. “New Jersey taxpayers over the last 23 years have paid more than a quarter billion dollars on a capital punishment system that has executed no one.” 197 capital cases, 60 convictions, 50 overturned, and no executions carried out since 1983. Average cost = ~$25 million/conviction.
And if they are innocent? From 1973 through 2003, 125 prisoners have been released from death row due to wrongful convictions. In 2003 alone, 10 prisoners were released. In 2000, Illinois Governor Ryan commuted the sentences for 167 inmates on death roll to natural life in prison. His reasoning was he could not be sure of whether the convictions were legitimate after releasing the 13th inmate from death roll due to wrongful conviction. 13 of 180 or ~7% error rate in Illinois. ~3800 inmates were on death row in 2000 and up till that point, 125 were released and exonerated for a percentage of ~3.2%. While not exact (it is probably higher), the 3.2% stands in defiance of Louisiana State Prosecutor Marquis and Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s claim of less than 1% being innocent and sentenced to death.”
and more completely on incarceration.
“What does a growing prison and correctional population cost for taxpayers? To support the growing state prison population, costs range from ~$13,000 in Louisiana to ~$45,000 in Rhode Island annually (2005). The average is ~$23,000 annually, “US Imprisons 1 in every 100 Adults” NYT. The cost of imprisonment compares nicely to a state or private college education (another story). As a whole the US imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other nation in the world from which the cost burden of housing prisoners has become an issue for states with a decreasing/stagnant economy and decreasing tax revenues. Paradoxically while costing more, jails and prisons for many communities are a stable and growing business employing people, services, and a fast growing part of the rural economies.
Incarceration Nation as one part of, Schmidt, Warner, and Gupta’s “The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration” (Real-World Economics Review, Issue no. 53) suggest much of the increased numbers of those under control of the correctional system result from harsher sentencing guidelines which in turn also have a lesser impact on crime. The mandated guidelines (drugs, three strikes, recidivism issues, etc.) result in higher imprisonment rates and consequently long sentences, higher costs to house prisoners as more prisoners are kept interned for longer periods, and have a diminished impact on crime.”
By far and given our justice system, it is less costly to imprison a person for life than to execute them. Raising an argument of changing the justice system to accommodate quicker executions at a lower cost goes against the grain of what this country is supposed to represent (please leave this argument at the door). There is a sound monetary argument to imprison a person for natural life rather than put them to death for murder and also to reconcile the law giving shorter sentencing for those guilty of nonviolent crime.
A recent PEW study is showing a change in the attitudes of people towards execution.
While the study still shows the majority of the population believes in executing prisoners convicted of murder, the people in favor of it are at the one of the lowest levels in 40 years. 56% of the populations are in favor of the death penalty and 38% oppose the death penalty.
A closer examination of who makes up the majority and minority leads to a breakout by partisanship and politics. 40% of Democrats still support the death penalty a decline of 31% since 1995. Declared independents supporting the death penalty declined from 79% in 1995 to 57% in 2015. 77% of Republicans support the death penalty, which is down from 87% in 1995. The Pew study has found doubts amongst many within its survey in how the death penalty is applied and whether it does deter crime.
A majority or 63% of participants in the study believed the death penalty is justified in cases of murder, 31% said there is no moral justification, and 7% believed it depends.
1 in 4 of those surveyed did not believe there were adequate safeguards in place to prevent an innocent prisoner from being put to death. This is borne out by the many who have had their sentences commuted or were released after further investigation. While the argument has been made the death penalty deters serious crime, 35% believed it did and 61% believed it did not.
41% of those in the study believed whites and minorities share the same likelihood of being sentenced to death while 52% believed minorities were more likely to be given the death penalty. As I have argued before and it is well borne out in studies, minorities who lack resource to pay for adequate defense and the failure of the Public Defender system to provide adequate defense leaves the minority population at greater risk to the death penalty.
There is a growing minority base who oppose the death penalty; however, those favoring it have remained relatively stalwart. If you are in favor of the death penalty, you are likely to be a white male Republican, 51 years or older, with at least a high school education, and religious. Since 2011, there has been a softening of attitude towards the death penalty by Democrats, women, minority, nonwhite practitioners of religious beliefs and those with no affiliation to a religion.
77% of Blacks say minorities are more likely to face the death penalty than are whites. Democrats polled at 70% in on the same question while 48% of Republicans claimed minorities are more likely to face the death penalty. Much of this can be seen playing back from the white population out of Baltimore, Ferguson, and other communities faced with minority protests from black citizens over random killing of unarmed minorities. Many of the minorities lack the financial well being to bring on a strong defense in court rooms and they have to rely on overworked, understaffed, under-financed, and often times inexperienced state public defenders. 85% of all cases in the court system today are plea bargained.
While there are sharp moral divides between those who oppose and those who favor the death penalty, there is an agreement between the two groups there are dangers of an innocent being put to death.
Federal Judge Jed S. Rakoff sums it up in one sentence (full comment below) on those who go to court as defendants; “Basically, we treat them like dirt.” The trip and expense of going to court is anything but as glamorous as shown on TV on shows such as “LA Law.” If you do not accept a plea bargain and you make the prosecution work; in the end and if you lose, you will be faced with harsher sentencing than if you accepted the plea bargain. The vast majority of people do not have the finances to fight back and are left to accept a public defender as their council. I do not wish to demean public defenders; but in many states, they are overworked, underpaid, often times inexperienced, etc. Your chance of winning slowly ebbs with each negative. 85% if not more cases are plea bargained and many of those who accept a plea bargain are a minority.
“In many respects, the people of the United States can be proud of the progress we have made over the past half-century in promoting racial equality. More haltingly, we have also made some progress in our treatment of the poor and disadvantaged. But the big, glaring exception to both these improvements is how we treat those guilty of crimes. Basically, we treat them like dirt. And while this treatment is mandated by the legislature, it is we judges who mete it out. Unless we judges make more effort to speak out against this inhumanity, how can we call ourselves instruments of justice?” Judge Jed S. Rakoff, “Mass Incarceration: The Silence of the Judges,” The New York Review of Books.
Juge Rakoff, in his article, also admits that without the plea bargaining leverage against defendants, the system would grind to a halt given the logistics of trying all the cases that would result. This happens on the civil side too with pressure to settle from the judges.
Years ago, in the circuit court of Cook county (Chicago), the general counsel for the CTA, angered by perceived biased rulings by the trial assignment judge, refused to settle anything and demanded trial on all his pending cases. The CTA had and has a lot of cases. The system did, indeed, grind to a halt and the assignment judge and the CTA’s general counsel had a meeting after which settlements resumed. Criminal defense lawyers don’t have access to that kind of leverage.
You’ve hit upon something crucial, Jack. Judges can exert pressure on prosecutors to agree to plea bargains proposed by defense counsel when appropriate, by hinting at hostile evidentiary rulings and, most important, subtlety indicating low, concurrent sentences for convictions on multiple counts. Of course, the latter would require, first, the repeal of the mandatory-minimum laws–which I think the public is, finally, very ready for.
Judge really do need to start seeing this as a central part of their job.