Another Program to Cut

To commemorate the centennial birthday of Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin was one of several speakers to speak at a banquet in California. Among other things, Palin complained the government is “spending too much” and “controlling too much”. She was presumably unaware of the irony within her statement, because capital punishment does both. The traditional conservative position on the subject of capital punishment is markedly incongruous with financial conservatism, so capital punishment is hardly an activity to be opposed exclusively by liberals.

It is a common misperception that the death penalty is less expensive than life imprisonment. For example, according to the ACLU of Northern California, death penalty trials cost $1.1 million more than trials in which the prosecution seeks life imprisonment. Housing is also far more expensive; it costs $90,000 more per person per year to incarcerate a person on death row than in a normal prison Overall, it is estimated that California would save $1 billion over the next five years, including the cost of building a new death row facility by abolishing the death penalty.

There are two fallacies which remain as roadblocks to abolition. The first of these, concerning the deterrent effects of the death penalty, remains. If a deterring effect is provided by the death penalty, it comes only through ignorance of facts. In 2008 alone, there were 2,142 murders reported in California, but only 18 convicted persons were sentenced to death. According to the California Department of Corrections, only 13 persons have been executed since 1978, but 52 died on death row from natural causes, so an inmate on death row is unlikely to be executed, and a murderer is even less likely to end up on death row. Simply put, this means a citizen is more likely to die in a car accident than a murderer is to be executed. As for the deterring effect, it is likely analogous to the discouragement from driving one feels after hearing about car crash fatalities: negligible.

An additional goal, one of moral “justice”, is said to be met by the killing of murderers. Assuming this to be true, any justice served by this Hammurabic barbarism is nullified by the existence of wrongful executions. Yes, Mrs. Palin, “death panels” do exist. They kill healthy, innocent people. However, there are two objections to the premise that the killing of murderers constitutes justice. The irrationality of this line of reasoning is found simply by following it to its conclusion. Justice by this definition prescribes the torture of torturers and the stealing of property from thieves, to say nothing of rapists. Such a system would not be justice; it would be absurd. The second objection it that those supporting the death penalty on the grounds of justice would be challenged to differentiate this “justice” from revenge.

Those in favor of limited government should question whether it is even the place of the government to deprive people of their ultimate possession. Based on the fiscal excesses involved, the Tea Party, an organization devoted entirely to fiscal moderation, should be the greatest advocate for abolition of the death penalty. Sarah Palin, a figurehead within the movement, thus has ample reason to oppose the death penalty. After all, compared with a life, taxes are meaningless.