This article, by yours truly, appears as an op-ed in the March 24, 2018 issue of Florida Today newspaper.
President Donald Trump is advocating for new sentencing laws applying capital punishment to drug dealers. Bad idea. Here’s why.
True, drug traffickers are among the scum of the earth, directly and indirectly contributing to addictions that affect millions of human beings, particularly youth. I would agree that they deserve the harshest of penalties, but not death.
It is only a matter of time before the death penalty is be out the door. Capital punishment is now banned in most all advanced and industrialized countries of the world. Only one-fourth of nearly 200 nations still retain the death penalty, which mostly include countries in Africa and the Middle East, thus putting the U.S. in such company as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran and Afghanistan.
Most polls, including Gallup and Pew Research, reveal the popularity for executing criminals has waned to below 50 percent, the lowest in 45 years. Close to 100 executions per year took place in the late 1990s. Those numbers have declined significantly to under 30 each year nationwide.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 2,817 prisoners currently occupy cells on death row, i.e. solitary confinement. There are far more drugs dealers arrested each year than murderers, which suggests we could expect double or triple death row confinements if drug trafficking were to warrant capital punishment.
The expenditures alone would be prohibitive. Every study conducted has shown that death penalty cases ramp up taxpayer costs significantly. A recent Oklahoma study puts death cases at 3.2 times the cost of other cases. A Palm Beach Post report showed death penalty cases cost $51 million per year above that of life sentences. North Carolina found that death penalties cost $2.16 million more per execution.
Add to that, the issue of solitary confinement and aging. In Florida, the average time served before execution is 20-plus years. Gary Alvord, a 60-year-old Florida inmate, died of natural causes on death row after serving 40 years. One more recent execution took 25 years from courtroom to needle. We can criticize the sluggish pace of the justice system, but that’s not going to change. Inmates who live long in their cells cost taxpayers even more with accelerating illnesses and medical treatment. Solitary confinement also requires many more guards per inmate.
Then, there is the risk of executing the innocent. While the vast majority of convicts were certainly guilty of dastardly crimes, there are a few who were not. Is it worth the risk the killing of one innocent person? Thus far, 161 inmates have been released from death row as innocent since 1973, many via DNA testing. Among states, Florida tops that list with 27.
Brevard County’s own William Dillon and Wilton Dedge served 27 and 22 years respectively for murders they did not commit. They were ultimately released as innocent because of DNA testing, and other issues with faulty prosecutions. Had they been sentenced to death, they would likely be long gone by now.
I worked in Miami-Dade Homicide for 16 of my 30 years on the job. I’m no softie. I’ve seen the worst of killers and drug traffickers by the hundreds. I was glad to have put many behind bars, or helped other cops do the same. But I cannot comprehend calling ourselves a just society while we carry out the very act we condemn, premeditated killing.
In truth, it’s not the death which serves as punishment, but instilling the fear of death. When it’s over, we have awarded murderers eternal sleep. Should we be doing that for drug traffickers as well?
We put little doggies and kitties to sleep as an act of humanity. Somehow that does not resonate as “punishment.”
I think the president has good intentions: getting really tough on criminals. But he needs to rethink supporting an act of humanity for drug traffickers.
Marshall Frank is a retired Miami-Dade police detective and frequent contributor to FLORIDA TODAY.