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Misplaced Priorities on Crime and Poverty

In a recent letter ["Limit Appeals, Spend More on the Innocent," May 1] Aidan N. Low '98 asserts that the increased number of executions of innocent individuals arising from the death penalty and the streamlining of the appeals process in capital cases is an acceptable price to pay for devoting the money "saved" to improving the lives of the destitute who are innocent.

What this argument fails to grasp, however, is that one of the reasons for the existence of due process, and indeed for abolishing the death penalty altogether, is the belief in the intrinsic value of human life. Saving the life of a person wrongly convicted is certainly worth the money spent on appeals and on the prison system. Especially considering the disturbing studies (such as a 1990 study by the General Accounting Office) that the death penalty is not meted out equitably across racial and economic lines, this is a position more consistent with fairness and human dignity.

The letter does raise a very emotionally-gripping point: It seems defeatist for society to spend more money, as Low claims it does, on accused or convicted felons than on innocent people trying to survive and get ahead. Low proceeds to argue that executing death row inmates will free up money to spend on the needy. A glance at the political landscape, however, suggests that this quick fix will not work. For example, according to The Washington Post, independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr has spent $30 million in his investigation.

If our leaders can find the money to keep Starr's probe going, they can certainly find similar amounts to provide opportunities for people at the bottom of society. The fact that such programs are not more widespread, then, is not due solely to a lack of financial resources, but also to a lack of political will. Whether this lack of initiative is due to politicians' callousness or to their thought-out conclusion that any further such programs would be ineffectual, there's no reason to believe that any money "saved" in the way Low proposes would find its way to "situations where it could clearly save lives."

Presumably, any "money spent on innocent lives" would attempt to enable people to live in a fulfilling and productive (hence crime-free) manner. Does it not follow, then, that we should be able to reduce crime and save money by establishing effective programs for the needy, without having to forsake justice by limiting the appeals of the accused?

Victor Chudnovsky G