Let the people vote

The death penalty is bad public policy, and repeal should be placed on the ballot

Gary Haugen gets yet another of his many days in court today when the Oregon Supreme Court hears oral arguments on whether Haugen can refuse Gov. John Kitzhaber's reprieve of his death sentence and force the state to execute him. The cost of that hearing and many others like it is just one reason why the death penalty should be scrapped.

House Joint Resolution 1, which received a hearing before the Oregon House Judiciary Committee last month, would ask voters to amend the Oregon Constitution to abolish the death penalty as the state's ultimate criminal punishment. Voters should have the opportunity to make that choice, and they should do away with capital punishment.

We take that position not because we have any sympathy for killers such as Haugen, who raped and murdered the mother of his former girlfriend, then killed a fellow inmate in prison. He should never be released, but neither should he be killed.

The arguments against the death penalty are well-known and persuasive. Here are just a few:

  • It is not a deterrent. Most murders are crimes of passion committed in the heat of the moment, not carefully planned plots. And states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states without it.
  • It is expensive. Studies show the typical cost of a murder trial in which the death penalty is sought far outweighs the cost of a trial in which the death penalty is not sought. So even if appeals were shortened, abolishing the death penalty would still save money. The appeals are costly, too — and they are necessary to make sure the state doesn't make a mistake (see below). One California study concluded it costs the state $90,000 more per year to keep a single prisoner on death row than in the general prison population.
  • It is fallible. Since 1973, more than 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row. The number of prisoners mistakenly put to death cannot be known, but even one would be too many, and the number must certainly be greater than that.

Haugen has said he wants to be executed as a protest against the legal system. His attorney will argue today that denying him his wish amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Haugen's case is unusual, but not unprecedented. Regardless of the outcome, if Oregon had no death penalty, Haugen would be spending the rest of his life behind bars and taxpayers would be spared the expense of his court challenge.

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