Get out of the death business


Facing a massive and costly prison overcrowding problem, Pennsylvania has reached the point where the right moral course — ending capital punishment — coincides more than ever with the need to get the state’s fiscal house in order.

Space is so tight in the prisons that 2,000 inmates are being shipped to other states. Meanwhile, the state Corrections Department is seeking an 8.5 percent boost in its new budget — driving the annual cost to warehouse convicts to $1.9 billion. That equals seven percent of all state spending.

So the abolition of the death penalty proposed this month by state Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) represents an effort, in part, to help reduce prison costs.

Leach says the state could save hundreds of millions of dollars by eliminating the death penalty. The savings would come by ending the lengthy and costly legal expense surrounding death-penalty appeals that clog the system.
The state would also save the extra cost of maintaining a death row whose population now stands at 220. That would free up high-security space for other convicts.

The dollars-and-cents argument against the death penalty is secondary, of course, to the risk of sentencing an innocent person to death row as has happened in six cases in Pennsylvania and 139 nationwide. Fortunately, those inmates were exonerated by new evidence but the risk remains of executing an innocent person.

It’s also well-documented that poor and minority murder defendants are more likely to face the death penalty. That’s due to the unequal access to an effective legal defense, as well as suspected racial bias in the courts.

A useful step toward scrapping the flawed capital punishment system would be to impose a moratorium on executions, as proposed under other legislation stalled in the General Assembly.

Despite the known failings of capital punishment and dwindling public support, influential state Senate Republicans like judiciary committee chair Stewart Greenleaf (R., Bucks) believe the state isn’t ready to outlaw executions. But the same might have been said a few years ago of New York and New Mexico, states that followed New Jersey’s 2007 lead to ban executions.

New Jersey hadn’t executed anyone in decades, so the death penalty in that state served no plausible deterrent to murder. The same could be said of Pennsylvania’s death row, where only so-called volunteers who halted their appeals have been executed in recent times. The most recent occurred more than 10 years ago with the death of torture-killer Gary R. Heidnik.

A ban on capital punishment apparently would have to await Gov. Rendell’s departure from office, since the former district attorney vows to veto any plan. Nor is there any assurance of support from any of the contenders to replace Rendell.

But the state’s prisons crisis is not going away any time soon, just as more death-row inmates are sure to be exonerated over time. That should make the costly and flawed system of capital punishment repugnant to more and more Americans.

Eventually, elected officials in Harrisburg will have to lead on this issue — or at least get out of the way.