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Limit Appeals, Spend More on the Innocent

Limit Appeals, Spend More on the Innocent

Naveen Sunkavally painted a very sad picture of the death penalty and those harmed by it ["A Shameful Punishment," April 28, 1998], but his arguments were characterized by a fundamental flaw. The problem with his argument is that it assumes unlimited resources to devote to the housing of these criminals.

In the current system, a death penalty sentence will end up costing the state even more than a life sentence, but this is only because of the current state of the appeals process. By streamlining the appeal process, and by limiting the time under which appeals can be lodged, the death penalty could cost significantly less than permanent incarceration.

Even the method of death, currently an expensive lethal injection or electric chair, could be replaced by a single bullet in the head which would be just as painless for the criminal, though psychologically more difficult for the rest of us.

This may, and probably will, lead to the killing of more innocent people than under the current system. Some (myself included) would say that the above argument is rationalizing, cold-blooded, and inhuman; that it argues we should kill more innocent people to save money. Yet that is exactly what I'm arguing.

I heard a statistic years ago that it cost $100,000/year to keep a person in prison. I'm sure that this number is much higher today. Now, let's consider again Sunkavally's example of Angel Breard, an abused alcoholic who was convicted of (and confessed to) murder and attempted rape of a woman in 1992. Now consider another person, also an abused alcoholic, but this person is homeless and has never killed anyone. The current system gives almost nothing to this other person; yet Sunkavally would hold that Breard deserves to have over $100,000 spent on him every year for the rest of his life.

Consider our inner cities, in which young people without the opportunities to succeed can find themselves in webs of drugs and violence, sometimes killed before they've even reached the age to vote. Could we help solve these problems better by enforcing a less expensive punishment for some and using the saved money to provide college scholarships for others? $100,000 a year is a lot of money, and could help a lot of people. Why is the life of a murderer worth more than the life of a child?

Sunkavally argues that the death penalty is inhumane to the people punished, and that lifetime incarceration in prison is more appropriate. I submit that spending over $100,000 a year on convicted murderers is inhumane to innocent people who could have been saved if the money was used to help them. The death penalty is murder, and it is wrong, but I see it as a necessary evil in a time of limited resources. We need to streamline the criminal justice system, and use funds for prevention rather than punishment.

When punishment is necessary, I believe that we should show preference for spending money on the innocent over spending money taking care of the guilty. While this may lead to more wrongful deaths, I hold that not spending the money on situations where it could clearly save lives will lead to even more wrongful deaths. And that is the real crime.

Aidan N. Low '98