3 Reasons We Need to End the Pennsylvania Death Penalty

It's expensive. We never use it. Why keep it?



First of all, much praise to the Inquirer and City Paper. They’re among the publications joining the ACLU to sue the state to get information on the supplier of Pennsylvania’s lethal injection drugs. Journalism is all about getting information to the public, and sometimes a little extra pressure is needed: It’s good to see that both papers can still find ways to bring that pressure.

It would be better for everybody, though, if the suit weren’t needed.

It would be better for everybody if Pennsylvania didn’t have a death penalty at all.

Let’s skip the moral objections for now, because everybody has a moral stance on the issue — either for or against — and at this point, passionate moral arguments probably aren’t going to move the needle. So let’s talk about good governance. Because the death penalty — in Pennsylvania — and elsewhere, is lousy governance:

• It’s applied so rarely, it can’t even begin to have a deterrent effect. Assuming we’re trying to achieve something besides brute, dumb vengeance with the death penalty, the plain fact is that — in Pennsylvania at least — it occurs too rarely to make other would-be murderers stop and reconsider their actions.

AP broke down the numbers this week: “Pennsylvania has 181 men and three women on death row. It has executed three people since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s; all three had relinquished their appeals. The state’s last execution was in 1999.” You’re more likely to die of natural causes on death row than to be executed.

We’re ending the term of a Republican governor who was previously the state’s attorney general. We haven’t had an execution under him yet, though the door’s not closed on that prospect. If he can’t carry out the death penalty more often, it’s likely that, after 40 years, the system we have isn’t going to get much more efficient. So what’s the point?

• It’s expensive. Back in 2011, The Morning Call provided the perspective: “Every year, the state Department of Corrections spends an estimated $10,000 more for each inmate on the country’s fourth largest death row compared to other prisoners. That’s despite a de facto halt on capital punishment in Pennsylvania for all but prisoners who voluntarily go to their executions. The last person put to death against his will was in 1962, half a century ago.”

So even though the death penalty isn’t used, death row is still taking a bite out of the taxpayer wallets. Again: What’s the point?

• It’s unfair. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “The Philadelphia Inquirer recently conducted a review of death penalty appeals in Pennsylvania spanning three decades and found a pattern of ineffective assistance by defense attorneys.  More than 125 capital murder trials in the Pennsylvania, including 69 in Philadelphia, have been reversed or sent back by state and federal courts after finding that mistakes by the defense attorney deprived the defendant of a fair trial.  These do not include cases in which courts found that lawyers made obvious mistakes but ruled that the mistakes did not affect the outcome of the case.” What else needs to be said?

If we’re going to have a death penalty, let’s make it transparent and consistent: Let’s disclose the names of the drugs being used. But better than that, let’s end the penalty altogether. We just don’t do it very well.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.