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September 17, 2006

ABA produces mega-report assailing Florida's death penalty

As detailed in articles here and here and here, the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project has released a massive report on Florida's capital punishment system.  This link provides access the 400+ page report and its 40+ page executive summary.  According to one newspaper account, the ABA report says that "Florida's death penalty system is plagued with problems of fairness, accuracy and racial disparity in sentencing."

As explained in this post when the ABA released a similar report on Georgia's system, I am troubled by the ABA's decision to allocate so many resources to death penalty studies, especially in states where relatively few defendants actually get executed.  According to the ABA report, from 1972 to 1999, 857 defendants were sentenced to death in Florida.  But, as of today, Florida has executed only 60 persons in the last three decades and the state currently has 376 defendants on death row.  With Florida averaging roughly two executions per year, it is clear a murderer sentenced to death in Florida is more likely to serve a functional life sentence than to be executed.

As I have explained before, I am amazed and annoyed how much energy is spent trying to ensure that a bunch of murderers get to spend a bit more time locked in a cage before they die, especially since I believe that there are far greater injustices in our criminal justice system than what we see in the (over-analyzed) death penalty system.  There are at least 132,000 persons in the US serving life imprisonment, some for petty crimes because of a personal history as a small-time thief or drug dealer.  And, of the more than 2,000,000 persons in jail or prison, nearly half are serving time for non-violent offenses.  To focus on Florida, statistics here and here and here, there are almost 10,000 defendants serving life sentences in the state.  Perhaps over 30,000 persons are imprisoned in Florida for potentially non-violent offenses involving drugs and burglary. 

Though I doubt there are many sweethearts in Florida's prisons, why should only the death sentences of convicted murderers come under the ABA's microscope?  In my view, there are many defendants who merit the time and attention of groups like the ABA a lot more than murderers on death row.

September 17, 2006 at 06:51 AM | Permalink

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The ABA page is riddled with bad links that produce 404 errors or call up documents from the Georgia committee. I've written the Webmaster about it, and hopefully they will be fixed soon. Past ABA reports have simply begun with a fake facade of neutrality followed by a litany of familiar defense-side complaints and not a word about problems as seen from the other side.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Sep 17, 2006 12:49:36 PM

I am a private defense attorney, about 1/4 of my practice is court-appointed defense of capital cases in Oregon.

I see your point about the many injustices that don't involve the death sentence. However, the problem with the death penalty is not simply that people get executed. The existence of the death penalty adds a stress to the system well before anybody actually gets executed. It imposes strain on people and costs taxpayer dollars that would not be spent if the maximum penalty were life in prison. In Oregon, we have had the death penalty (this time) since 1984, and "only" two people, both "volunteers," have been put to death. The first person in the death-pipeline is at least a decade away from execution. Yet the cost to people and purses has been huge.

To pick one under-considered group: jurors in capital cases have a huge burden imposed on them, different than any other jurors.

Posted by: Laura Graser | Sep 17, 2006 8:02:41 PM

Laura, you raise a good argument for abolishing the death penalty, but not for studying it excessively. Indeed, I wish more of the energy surrounding the DP was focused on cost issues and whether we'd get a better bang for our buck with more police or more education programs, etc. But instead of cost-benefit analysis, we get 400 pages flyspecking problems that are likely only to concern people already opposed to the DP.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 18, 2006 2:22:44 AM

While I see your point about the fact that death sentences generally end up becoming de facto life sentences, it's also important, I think, to remember that the finality of a death sentence is what makes this aspect of American sentencing policy worthy of exacting scrutiny. The fact that the proportion of people who actually die is very small, relative to the number of people actually on death row, just doesn't excuse any kind of error in the legal process. Seven people have been exonerated and released from death row in Pennsylvania, the state where I grew up. One was just released last November after 17 years on death row (see http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?did=1613&scid=64 -- he's also the 122nd person to be exonerated in the U.S.) because new evidence came to light -- the prosecution just happened to find some physical evidence that it had previously "misplaced." While I personally believe that the exoneration of 122 innocent people (or even one!) is enough evidence to support an argument for the wholesale abolition of the death penalty, it's only one of many, many examples of the shortcomings of our criminal justice system that show that we will never, ever be able to administer it fairly (more examples -- death-qualified penalty-phase juries, racial disparities in the imposition of death vs. life in prison, victim impact evidence, etc.; I could go on all day). Therefore, I don't believe it's accurate to characterize the ABA's efforts as too much "energy . . spent trying to ensure that a bunch of murderers get to spend a bit more time locked in a cage before they die." A guilty verdict in a capital case is just not the same as a guilty verdict in any other criminal case, and if we're going to insist on holding on to this form of punishment after nearly every country in the world has abandoned it, we can't just say it's not worth our money or time to study it because there just aren't that many people dying. A lifetime on death row is just another kind of death, really.

Posted by: Moira | Sep 18, 2006 12:58:37 PM

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