As the perennial debate over the legality of capital punishment moves from California to Maryland in 2013, the prognosis for the repeal movement might seem grim. After all, it is difficult to imagine how this progressive policy move could fail in the famously liberal Golden State and immediately succeed in Maryland.
And yet, if the support for repeal in Maryland avoids the misused rhetoric employed in California, there may still be a possibility for a reversal of the law this year.
To start, the extremely popular argument against the death penalty, the massive legal cost of putting a murderer on death row, should take a quick exodus. During the months leading up to the public vote on Proposition 34 in California, everyone from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to the Los Angeles Times noted wasted taxpayer money as a prominent rationale for repealing the law.
While this annual $184 million burden on the taxpayers of California is sizeable, it is irrelevant in a discussion of life and death. Money is a legitimate concern in many issues that concern the populace, like whether or not to build a new railway system, but it should not occupy a single breath when considering using lethal injection on fellow citizens.
The rhetoric that surrounds political issues defines how citizens consider them.
Not surprisingly, this same misallocation of rhetoric characterizes many American political disputes. In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, regarding the expansion of slavery to new states in the Union, Stephen A. Douglas supported the option of slavery, partially for economic reasons.
Described as “states’ rights” at the time, Douglas’s argument centered on the notion that different states’ economies necessitate different types of labor. Forbidding slavery would therefore throw a wrench into healthy economic growth and production. In other words, while Lincoln explained the atrocity of human servitude and the inherent dignity of each human, Douglas spoke of financial interest.
Needless to say, history shows a clear winner of those debates.
The rhetoric that surrounds political issues defines how citizens consider them. So, it is not surprising that the argument for retribution to the families of victims trumped the rationale provided by L.A. Police Chief William Bratton that “It’s much cheaper to sentence [murderers] to life in prison and throw away the key.”
Unfortunately, Bratton’s line of argument has not yet disappeared as the issue moves from California’s ballot to Maryland’s legislative table.
The group Maryland Citizens Against State Executions lists $2 million as the annual cost of litigating just one death row case. The ACLU of Maryland brings up the “staggering amounts of precious recourses” wasted. Maryland online newspaper The Gazette, in an article on November 30, 2012, states $186 million as the total amount spent on capital punishment in the state’s history.
These arguments should sound familiar.
The point is this: whether or not the death penalty is justifiable, this debate should stay in the realm of morality and ethics, not of money. If it does not, if groups like the ACLU continue to use high cost as an argument to repeal the law, the response from the public and legislature will be: “Well, our pockets are deep enough.”
The argument for repealing the law should instead rest on such ethical questions as the disproportionate impact on minorities, the possibility of a wrongful conviction, and the moral questionability of a state’s monopolization of violence.
If the debate in Maryland becomes a question of moral value versus moral value, not of money versus public moral interest, then there may be a fighting change for repeal after all.
At the least, we will be keeping finance out of our most personal, ethical questions.