Capital Punishment: The Wrong Answer, with High Costs

As a community, we are all still reeling from the tremendous pain and anxiety that began with the tragic and shocking events that occurred at the Boston Marathon.  It’s understandable that a sense of personal outrage would spark demands for retribution.  Just a week after the Marathon bombings, an amendment to reinstitute the death penalty in Massachusetts was raised during the budget debate for Fiscal Year 2014.  Immediately after the issue was brought up, an alternative amendment was approved, calling for an analysis of the costs of reinstating capital punishment in Massachusetts.  

First, the cost of reinstating the death penalty is just one reason that the Boston Bar Association opposes capital punishment in Massachusetts.  Our justice system has yet to emerge from a state of crisis and the courts can barely survive the waves of civil and criminal business already in our system.  It’s impossible to imagine the extra burden on the system of a death penalty law without a massive infusion of money, personnel, and facilities. Proponents of the death penalty fail to consider the hefty costs a death penalty would impose on District Attorneys, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, and the Department of Corrections

Second, mistakes do happen.  Our justice system is exemplary, but it’s not perfect.  As lawyers, we value the quality of justice in our Massachusetts courts, but we are acutely aware of the opportunities for and the actual occurrence of errors in our system.  Mistakes are inherent not only in our justice system but also in our forensic laboratories.  Recent revelations about failures in our state crime labs have been shocking.  The potential for wrongfully applying the death penalty to an innocent person is substantial and scary. 

Third, capital punishment does not deter violent crime.  Appropriate prison sentences should be used to punish and deter those who kill. 

What’s more, racial disparities in the administration of capital punishment are significant.  Studies have shown that people of color receive the death penalty far more often than Caucasians.

The Legislature shouldn’t even consider adopting a law with the wide-ranging economic and social effects of capital punishment without understanding its current economic and social impacts.  The Legislature should focus on ways to immediately improve our criminal justice system by ensuring the entire system is adequately funded. 

The law must provide justice in every single case.  This means adequately funded courts, ensuring high quality defense representation in all criminal cases, along with improvements and upgraded standards for our crime labs.  Rather than call for the restoration of the death penalty in Massachusetts, we should look at the problems of violence in our society in a more comprehensive way.  The death penalty is not the solution. 

- Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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