Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Editorial: Death penalty is not the necessary conversation

Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, has stated his intention to start a discussion about protecting Alaskans from violent crimes. While that’s a noble aim and would be a valuable conversation, by submitting House Bill 9, which would reinstate the death penalty in Alaska, he takes the discussion in the wrong direction.

The Alaska Territorial Legislature abolished the death penalty in 1957, with good reason. Moral concerns aside, the practicality and common-sense arguments against state executions are too weighty to overcome.

As Chenault himself points out in a post on his blog, www.mikechenault.com, death row is expensive. The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice found in 2008 that confining an inmate to death row, compared to a sentence of life without parole, is $90,000 more per inmate. On the federal level, a 2008 report by the Office of Defender Services found that a federal murder case in which the death penalty is sought costs about $620,932 — eight times more than a murder case not seeking execution.

As Speaker of the House, Chenault displays a disappointingly laissez-faire attitude about state expenses, especially in trying financial times: “Frankly, I don’t believe that cost should get in the way of dispensing true justice. How do you measure the cost of peace of mind? Most of us would sleep better at night knowing a criminal will never have the opportunity to harm another human being.”

While doing what’s right isn’t always synonymous with doing what’s cheapest, in this situation, there is a more cost-effective, as well as overall effective, solution:

Life without parole. Not only is it less expensive than reinstating the death penalty, it also avoids the risk of executing the wrong person. Chenault says the death penalty should only be used in “cases where there is no question of guilt or innocence,” and that he’s included safeguards in his bill to “help ensure that people are not wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.”

When we’re talking about life and death, “help ensure” is simply not good enough. In a justice system predicated upon “reasonable doubt” — not absolute, 100 percent certainty — there’s always at least a fraction of a chance of a mistake, especially when human error is an ever-present possibility. The only way to absolutely ensure the wrong people aren’t put to death is to not kill them.

When considering the larger goals of sentencing — protecting the public from repeat offenders and deterring future crime — the death penalty is not the best way to achieve those aims.

Life without parole is just as effective at preventing criminals from harming anyone else, especially if Chenault had proposed a bill seeking to strengthen life sentences. As for preventing heinous crimes, the threat of the death penalty is not a deterrent. Expecting it to be means expecting violent criminals to employ rational thought. If they did that, they wouldn’t have committed such crimes in the first place.

Murderers, terrorists, serial killers — by definition, they are not reasonable individuals. If they are deranged enough to perpetrate violence on such a monstrous scale, chances are they won’t pause beforehand to consider which state they’re in and what the maximum penalty might be if they are caught, lose their jury trail and exhaust all their appeals.

Common sense is borne out by research — information from the Death Penalty Information Center shows that states without the death penalty have consistently lower murder rates than states with the death penalty.

Chenault says so himself — “People who commit the most monstrous of crimes will not have the opportunity to reoffend if a death sentence is imposed … while I don’t believe it’s a deterrent to crime, I believe it should be an option for the justice system to brandish against the most heinous unremorseful criminals in our society.”

Protection of human rights and safety should be the highest priority of our justice and related social systems. If even Chenault doesn’t believe the death penalty will deter violent crime, what’s the point of introducing the measure?

Time and discussion would be much better spent on other aims — strengthening sentencing for the most heinous crimes, helping murder victims’ families and investing in education, rehabilitation, employment and social service programs proven to help prevent crime and keep criminals from reoffending.

Let’s breathe life into those areas and keep the death penalty buried.

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