Friday, April 11, 2008

Suspend death penalty, decriminalize misdemeanors


Robert Wesley

April 11, 2008

News of the past few weeks includes reports of budget cuts for hospitals, nursing homes and schools. And because of budget shortfalls, the Florida Legislature has mandated similar drastic cuts for the justice system.

It is easy to run a state office when the budget is adequate and you are not required to innovate, but changing conditions make a government manager reassess. We must consider options to help us stay within the reduced budget. My proposals include decriminalizing most misdemeanors so most proceedings don't require a lawyer in simple cases and ensuring that only truly indigent people benefit from public-defender services. That means strict adherence to the criteria for assigning lawyers to the needy. We must also consider a moratorium on the death penalty.

Tough times call for tough decisions. A tough decision that could help us weather these difficult financial times would be the suspension of the death penalty. Prosecuting and defending capital cases is much too expensive in this era of deep budget cuts.

Florida law provides only two options for a person convicted of a capital case: the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Either alternative demands that the offender die in prison. And all studies show that the death penalty is more expensive than life in prison due to its cumbersome procedural requirements.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld very specific steps that need to be conducted in capital cases. Our Constitution mandates that there are no shortcuts in the capital-punishment procedure. Because of this, death-penalty cases are difficult and expensive to prepare. Enormous time and resources go into the preparation of a capital case; three-quarters of that goes toward the penalty phase, the trial portion where the jury decides whether a convicted murderer should die or spend the rest of his life in prison. Despite the fact that the death penalty is imposed for a small fraction of offenses, we are required to do the costly and time-consuming preparation in many cases in which death ultimately is not the punishment.

Consider that lawyers prepare many cases as if they were going to the penalty phase, only to obtain a legal determination that death is not applicable or to have the prosecution waive the death penalty in that case. In these cases, in which the life or death decision is never presented to the jury, enormous resources are truly wasted. We could save millions of dollars annually if we did away with the death penalty, relying solely on life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Last year the New Jersey Legislature abolished the death penalty in that state because it cost less to incarcerate a prisoner for life rather than pursue the death penalty. Now is the time for Florida to take a hard look at whether we can afford death-penalty prosecutions when we don't have the funds to prepare for those cases as required by our Constitution.

Robert Wesley is the public defender for the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties.

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