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Issue Position: Death Penalty

Issue Position

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A flurry of articles recently surfaced about the cost of death penalty cases as it affects state budgets. Considering the current shortfall in state revenues during our faltering economy, opponents are pouncing on an opportunity to pose a stealth argument for ridding the state, and even the country, of the death penalty altogether. Typical of the print media we have seen very little of the opposing viewpoint.

Pennsylvania State Senator, Daylin Leach recently proposed a bill that would eliminate capital punishment substituting a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Since death penalty opponents have not been able to win the moral argument they decided to parlay one appealing to a large segment of voters' cost.

Death penalty opponents claim the costs of such prosecutions is prohibitive, citing a number of studies which conclude that capital cases cost more and produce very few executions, so why go through all the trouble. Pennsylvania houses 225 death row inmates but has only executed three since 1976. They deduce it is cheaper to simply assign a life sentence to begin with and save the legal fees.

The problem for opponents is that Pennsylvanians widely support capital punishment by over 70%. But other cracks in their newfound position appear upon closer examination. Opponents typically cite increased legal costs in capital cases and the housing of capital prisoners but are not specific as to why. When we unwrap the "why" we can counter the argument by achieving more efficient ways of dealing with the existing cost structure. For example, one study claimed that merely boarding convicts on death row costs $90,000 more per year per person than traditional confinement because prisoners must be kept in single cells with additional guards.

It does not take much creativity to suggest we double up death row inmates to halve the cost. But some argue that this poses a constitutional challenge of unacceptable danger for prisoners because they might kill each other. Disregarding the fact that most Pennsylvanians have little sympathy for such an argument, the legal premise itself is weak. By this logic, we can't place two killers in the same cell on death row because they might hurt one another, but if we reduce their sentence to life in prison the same two killers can bunk together? Ridiculous!

We can also seek more efficient solutions to reducing the number of guards needed to supervise death row by redesigning prison layout.

Opponents deem the legal process itself too costly, with appeals languishing for years resulting in death row inmates dying from natural causes before their sentences are carried out. Once, again, we need to review the process streamlining it from say 20 years to ten, once more reducing cost in half.

The final argument is that PA has not executed a prisoner since Gary Heidnik in 1999 after he was convicted of keeping female captives in a pit in his Philadelphia basement for years, torturing, raping and beating them to death. When one victim, Sandra Lindsay died of a combination of starvation and torture, Heidnik dismembered her, cooking her ribs in an oven and boiling her head on his stove. He even saved some of her limbs in his freezer.

So, the logic here suggests that since we haven't executed anyone for so long, we should abolish the notion of it completely.

The bottom line remains the cost argument is a red herring to abolish the death penalty. Even if the expense of capital punishment was prohibitive, states could choose to reduce the number of capital cases pursued, or increase the legal threshold of pursuit, without eliminating it thus reserving the option to pursue capital punishment in heinous cases like Heidnik.


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