An Eye for an Eye?

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by Stephen Phillips

There is a tragedy brewing in America, and people should be told.

As of this time, 3,709 people are scheduled to be murdered.  Most of them know of their impending fate, but are powerless to do anything about it.

Why is nothing being done to help these unfortunates?  Why is law enforcement not combing the streets, actively hunting the perpetrators of this heinous crime?  Why has the legal community turned a blind eye to this imminent loss of life?

Why?  Because in all of these cases, law enforcement and the legal community are the perpetrators of a form of legalized murder.

Since the Supreme Court decided to reintroduce the death penalty in 1976, 763 people have been executed.  So far this year, 14 people have been "legally" murdered.  Yet statistics continually show that violent crime (that is, crimes against people) has changed very little, and in some cities is even increasing.

I would like to thank the Coalition for the Abolition of the Death Penalty for allowing me to quote the following facts and figures:

Of the 3,709 individuals currently waiting on death row, 55.2% are white, 42.9% are black, and 1.8% are classed as “other,” which includes Hispanic, Asian and American Indian.  If you break it down by sex, 98.6% are men and 1.4% are female. The average age of those on death row is in the 35-39 year range.   As for educational achievement, 13.9% have an 8th-grade education or less, 37.7% have completed grades 9 to 11, 38.2% are high school graduates or have a GED, and only 10.1% have any college.

In economic terms, taxpayers in Florida are spending on average $2.3million per execution--over six times what it would cost for life without parole.  In 1995, the Empire State brought back the death penalty, and the Department of Corrections estimated that it would cost approximately $118 million annually to implement.  That same year, state legislators said that there would be a severe budget shortfall, and made dramatic cuts in funding education and health care.  In New Jersey in 1991, the State spent $16 million to impose the death penalty.  The next year it laid off 500 police officers because it couldn't afford to pay them.

What is also interesting is that the average murder rate per 100,000 people in states with capital punishment is about 8%, while it is only 4.4% in abolitionist states. 

Even law enforcement officials agree that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent. Fully 67% of police officers, when asked to comment on the death penalty, do not feel that capital punishment decreases the rate of homicides.  Only 3% of police officers see the imposition of the death penalty as one of the most useful weapons in their fight against crime.

However, in a 1997 survey of the population at large, fully 75% of respondents polled believed that the death penalty was effective, and only 22% opposed it.  How have the views of the general population gotten so far out of whack with those of the people who actually uphold the law?

The facts and figures should make the average person seriously think about just how effective the death penalty is at actually curbing violent crime.  But this is not the case, as shown by the fact that violent crime, although slightly down in the past several years, has once again begun to creep back up.  The ultimate deterrent has shown to be fundamentally flawed on many levels, yet it continues to be used on a regular basis, apparently without any real evidence of its effectiveness.

With the current prison population now pushing 1,300,000 and the possibility of a decrease nowhere in sight, perhaps it is time for the whole criminal justice system, from prosecution to sentencing, to be put under the microscope and seriously re-evaluated--especially in relation to the death penalty.

I know that there is no "quick fix" solution to the massive problems facing the justice system at large, but a serious review and overhaul of the system is long overdue, and without direct and immediate corrective action, the whole system will continue to disintegrate. 

I fear that many inmates now under sentence of death will continue to languish in prison with the sword of justice swinging inexorably hanging over their heads.  I would wholeheartedly agree that persistent violent offenders should receive harsh punishments for their crimes, but does killing them really make a difference?  In interviews with convicted murderers, when asked if they thought the threat of a possible death sentence would have made them think twice about committing their crimes, very few killers said that it had a deterrent effect.   Quite obviously, then, the threat of the ultimate punishment is viewed by some criminals as little more than an occupational hazard.

Man as a species likes to think of himself as the highest and most evolved form of life on this planet, yet we still continue to be the only group that kills for the sake of killing. Here we are at the dawn of a new millennium, having long ago shed most of our primal instincts, yet we still punish wrongdoers in a very primal way.

Are we really so advanced--or are we still little more than educated murderers?


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