Wednesday, November 30, 2011

kill 'em all, and let God sort 'em out

I read a lot of books, enough that I’ve actually set up an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all of them. Generally speaking, I’m not going to write about them unless they’re absolutely riveting OR there’s a strong connection with current events.

A case in point is one of John Grisham’s latest books, titled, “The Confession”, and the topic is the wrongful execution (in Texas) of a fictional character named Donte Drumm. In yet another case of life imitating art, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon put a moratorium on the death penalty for the rest of his term a few days after I finished reading Grisham’s book. His reasons for the moratorium can be found at the link below:

kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.

My old home state of Illinois ENDED the death penalty altogether last spring, more than a decade after then-Governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium when it was discovered that over a dozen death row convicts had been wrongfully convicted. The 167 convicts on death row had their sentences commuted to life in prison. This time around, the 15 convicts still remaining on death row were scattered to various prisons around the state.

Governor Perry’s home state has executed more people, by far, than any other state in America. Since the death penalty was reinstated in America in 1976, the folks in the Lone Star state have executed 477 people. Although it would be nearly impossible to examine all of those executions, the chances are fairly good that not all of those 477 people were actually guilty of a crime, which should give Governor Perry (the longest serving governor in Texas history) something to reflect about, even though his denial of global warming (in the midst of the worst drought in Texas since 1948) tells us that he’s not exactly a deep thinker. As he recently demonstrated at a Republican candidate debate, though, he doesn’t seem to be very worried about the “justice” that his state is carrying out.

If he actually DID take the time to review more of the death penalty cases in Texas, he would learn that innocent people HAVE been executed in Texas. Sam Millsap, a former Texas prosecutor, now crusades AGAINST the death penalty because a man who he caused to be executed was later proved to be innocent. In addition, a Texas prosecutor named Ken Anderson is going to be held accountable for alleged prosecutorial misconduct for a case that he prosecuted. After spending 25 years for a crime that he didn't commit, the man that he prosecuted (Michael Morton) was released from prison in October of 2011.

The majority of the states in America still have the death penalty, and roughly 60% of the population still favor the death penalty, but there are some important economic issues that really should be addressed, in addition to the fact that the death penalty isn't always a just sentence.

In 1944, the state of South Carolina executed a 14 year old black boy, even though the state had no written confession, no witnesses were called on his behalf, and the jury only spent 10 minutes deliberating his fate. George Junius Stinney Jr's story can be read at the link below:

a travesty of justice

The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with roughly 2.4 million people behind bars. Of that total, 1.4 million are locked up for non-violent crimes, such as the possession of marijuana. Depending on the state, it costs somewhere between $18,000 to $31,000 a year to keep each of those people in prison, which means that we (as a society) are spending between 43 and 74 BILLION dollars on our prison expenses every 365 days.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are worried about teacher pensions in Wisconsin.

According to the best estimates, California (which has over 700 people on death row) could save $200,000,000 a year by eliminating the death penalty, and changing the sentence to life in prison without parole. I'm afraid to do the math, but if all 3250 people that are still on death row in this country had their sentences changed to life in prison without parole, my guess is that all of our states (most of which are fairly broke) would save a lot of money.

I'm not doubting that the 1.000,000 violent criminals that are currently in our prisons should continue to be imprisoned, but I believe that our society needs to be a lot smarter about where we spend our scarce resources, and I'm not convinced that being "tough on crime" is always the right answer.

Virtually everyone has an opinion about the death penalty, but one of the most compelling statements that I’ve come across was given in 1995 by Sister Helen Prejean, who was portrayed in “Dead Man Walking” by Susan Sarandon(who won an Academy award for her role in the film):

“Government can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill”.

Her words were true then, and they are even truer today.

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