It’s Time to Snuff Out the Death Penalty

I'm a liberal, but my reason for wanting to end capital punishment in Pennsylvania couldn't be more conservative: It's another government program that's too expensive and not working BY SENATOR DAYLIN LEACH

Recently, I introduced Senate bill 1218, which would abolish the death penalty in Pennsylvania. New Jersey and New Mexico have recently abolished their death penalty laws, and other states are contemplating doing the same. Polls show a 15-to-20 percent drop in support for capital punishment nationwide, and juries in state after state are increasingly reluctant to sentence defendants to death, imposing only 106 death sentences in 2009, down from a high of 328 in 1994.

What is driving this dissipation of support for our ultimate punishment, and why do I feel that my abolition bill will ultimately succeed where previous attempts have not? As a liberal, I must admit that both the sea change in attitudes and my optimism come from the increasing skepticism of capital punishment on the part of conservatives. [SIGNUP]

The First Principle of modern conservatism is reducing the size and cost of government. Viewed through that prism, the death penalty is just another government program that is too expensive and just not working — imposing death costs between $2 million and $3 million more per murder defendant than a murder case where the death penalty is not at issue. Nationwide, only about 1 out of 10 death sentences is ultimately carried out, raising the cost of each death sentence to between $20 million and $30 million, with actual executions costing much more.

What are the taxpayers getting for their money? Not much. In the modern era, California has executed 13 people at a cost of $250 million per execution. Maryland has spent $186 million to execute five people. In Pennsylvania we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars putting 355 people on death row, but have only executed three people in the past 48 years, all of whom asked to be executed. In other words, at a cost of up to $3 million per death sentence, the state has spent about $1.2 billion to have a death penalty — and not executed one person who didn’t ask to die in almost 50 years!

Beyond that, even states with the highest execution rates have not seen their murder rates drop disproportionately to demographically similar states without the death penalty. In fact, the states with the highest execution rates (such as Texas and Oklahoma) continue to have murder rates well above the national average.

Another problem with the death penalty is that its error rate is unacceptably high for a penalty of such finality. Since 1973, more than 130 people have been freed from death row after being found completely innocent of the charges that sent them there (often, but not always, through DNA testing). While we have executed three people in Pennsylvania, we’ve also released 6 innocent men from death row. Clearly we have a flawed system that cannot be relied upon when human lives are at stake

This is why fiscal conservatives are not the only conservatives to find the death penalty increasingly objectionable. A Peter Hart survey of police chiefs found that the death penalty is ineffective at reducing violent crime, is too expensive, and detracts from more effective law enforcement tools. This is why an increasing number of police and DA Associations are endorsing abolition.

By any reasonable measure, capital punishment is a failed government program. It costs too much; it provides little if anything in return; and it fails to respect the “culture of life” that conservatives often speak of with great passion. This is why people across the political spectrum, are demanding that we end a big-government experiment that simply does not work.

DAYLIN LEACH is a Democrat representing Pennsylvania’s 17th Senatorial district.