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January 2, 2007

First-cut reactions to the NJ report on the death penalty

Unsurprisingly, the media and blogosphere are already buzzing about the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission Report (basics here), which "recommends that the death penalty in New Jersey be abolished and replaced with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole."  Here is coverage from Reuters and the New York Times, and a nice set of reaction quotes from NewsdayIn addition, early reactions can be found at the blogs TalkLeft and Capital Defense Weekly.

Though I have only read the report quickly, I must say that I am quite underwhelmed.  Though I tend agree with some the report's findings, the supporting analysis is no more sophisticated than what I would expect to see in a college term paper.  Perhaps the goal of the report was to make it accessible to lay readers; the report could readily be assigned as reading in a high school civics class.  But I was hoping that, after a year of work and five public hearings and a public working session, this report would be much more sophisticated.

Two related points spotlight my concerns about the report's lack of sophisticated analysis: (1) there is barely any mention, and absolutely no analysis, of how the death penalty might impact charging and plea bargaining practices; (2) the discussion of costs is simplistic and does not explore the possible costs of abolishing the death penalty.  Especially since New Jersey has not had any executions in the modern era, these failings of the report seem particularly problematic.  In a state that clearly won't ever have a lot of executions, the real question seems to be whether and how having the death penalty on the books genuinely impacts criminal justice actors in New Jersey.

The short dissent by Senator Russo also suffers from simplicity.  Senator Russo asserts that arguments about costs "are utter and sheer nonsense....  It doesn't matter what it costs.  The taking of a human life is something far too important to be influenced either way by costs."  Really?  Would Senator Russo demand that New Jersey pay for the costs of a taxi ride home for anyone concerned they had too much to drink to avoid the chance of drunk drivers taking human lives.  Of course, it would cost the state a fortune to provide free taxi rides for everyone heading home from the Meadowlands after a game, but apparently Senator Russo believes that any "taking of a human life is something far too important to be influenced either way by costs."

January 2, 2007 at 06:48 PM | Permalink


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Karl Keys and Doug Berman are having back and forth blogging about the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission's report. Start here with Doug Berman's initial post, and you can follow this trail to Keys and back to Berman's latest.. [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 4, 2007 1:56:36 PM


Governor Corzine has made clear his opposition to the death penalty, and his position in favor of life without parole [similar to a life sentence in the federal sentencing sphere]. The Report will merely be used by His Honor to support his potiion with the legislature. There has not been an execution in NJ in more than four decades, and hopefully it will be another four decades before this issue arises again. NY is clearly following suit, with the Ct of Appeals having struck down the death penalty, and the Democratic Assemby opposed to it, and with Gov. Spitzer not an advocate. Furthermore, the Republican controlled Senate may soon become Democratically controlled, too. Unfortunately, CT still has a death penalty, and it was recently exercised. Hopefully, that will not occur any time soon again.

Posted by: Bernie Kleinman | Jan 2, 2007 10:32:55 PM

I share your concern for the "genuine impact" of the death penalty on criminal justice actors, especially since the only politically acceptable alternative is Life Without Parole. That would be acceptable if it were used only on those convicted of such heinous murders as to be eligible for execution. LWOP, however, has been expanded in its use, probaly 10 times the 50 or so fewer executions in recent years. (Factual research needed here.) Is an expanded LWOP worth the trade off? Any estimate of that cost?

Posted by: Mike Israel | Jan 3, 2007 2:53:39 PM

Mike Israel asks whether an expanded LWOP is worth the trade-off. I don't have the exact figures, but it's well known that death cases are extraordinarily expensive to prosecute, due to the multiple layers of "automatic" appeals and a panoply of extra procedural protections found only in those cases. Many of those protections were introduced by the Supreme Court in its more activist days and probably would not find support in the constitution if they were re-evaluated as an original matter.

As you suggest, I think the abolitionists favor LWOP because it's the only politically acceptable alternative. Indeed, even that alternative might not be acceptable, as it has proved very difficult to repeal the death penalty in states that now have it. Even though the actual number of executions in most states is miniscule, most people believe on principle that the death option should be available. (Excepting Texas, which is off the charts, no state executed more than five people last year.)

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jan 3, 2007 3:34:25 PM

It doesn't matter what it costs. For example, the costs of trying and executing an axis of evil, Saddam Hussein:

Nearly 2,000 civilians slain in Iraq in December"

12,320 civilians killed during 2006

Over 3000 troops killed.

"Out here, due process is a bullet." Col. Michael Kirby (John Wayne in "The Green Berets")

From the National Priorities Project:

"The taxpayer cost of the Iraq War is broken down for various towns, cities and counties across the U.S. The breakdown is based on a total cost of $378 billion. That is $3,375 for every American household or $1,275 for every American or $2,848 per taxpayers. The money (already spent or allocated) is being spent at a rate nearly $11 million per hour and $255 million per day."

One very expensive execution, and all this is likely only the down payment. It is forcing citizens to rethink the "good v. evil at any cost" slogan.

Posted by: George | Jan 3, 2007 6:03:42 PM

I didn't make myself perfectly clear in my previous post. When comparing the cost of the death penalty with LWOP, first we must ask if the moral cost of 500 life sentences without parole is worth the 50 or so executions, for LWOP is arguably comparable to execution. It's not far behind. Life is only preferable if it is for the same defendants.
Also, in computing financial costs, of course life is cheaper than death, but are 10 life sentences cheaper than one death sentence? carried out?
If we compare death with LWOP for public policy purposes, it's not valid to make a one-to-one comparison. It's one death or 10 LWOP's.

Mike Israel

Posted by: Mike Israel | Jan 5, 2007 2:34:11 PM

very excellent restriction from media and news and made worry them to find the killer and they wont let the police to not bring the killer in ail

Posted by: mike | May 24, 2007 4:32:16 AM

Perhaps New Jersey's analysis of the death penalty could have been more sophisticated but at least it's being seriously discussed and getting some media attention.

Posted by: New Jersey!! | Apr 12, 2008 9:04:32 PM

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