Recently, the death penalty has reemerged as a national topic of conversation, as botched executions, drug shortages, and new data on exonerations and racial disparity have revealed some of the shortcomings and injustices of the capital punishment system.
Many people assume that police officers, prosecutors, and corrections officials are united in their support for the death penalty. We have a different perspective. We are the co-chairs of Public Safety Officials on the Death Penalty (PSODP), a new group dedicated to elevating the voices of public safety officials who are prepared to discuss and explore alternative ways to achieve a more just and effective public safety system.
PSODP comprises former and current public safety professionals from across the country. Its members have served as beat cops and police chiefs in major cities, as district attorneys and state attorneys general; as corrections officers and as the heads of state corrections agencies. Some have investigated or prosecuted capital cases; some have approved or overseen executions. PSODP does not take a stance on the ultimate appropriateness of the death penalty; some members of the initiative may support it, others may oppose it. What we all have in common, though, is concern about the fairness and efficacy of the death penalty as it is currently administered, and at this critical point in our nation’s conversation about the death penalty, we feel compelled to speak up.
We believe that any discussion about the death penalty should be well-informed, and we know that our experiences in the criminal justice system give us a unique perspective on the issue. While each member of PSODP has their own perspectives and concerns, here are some of the issues that we believe are most pressing.
First, we are concerned about the risk of executing an innocent person. We have seen firsthand that the criminal justice system, like any other human endeavor, makes mistakes. Earlier this month, the National Registry of Exonerations released a new report finding that in 2015, a record 149 people were exonerated in the United States — including five from death row. Even more alarming is a 2012 study from the National Academy of Sciences, which estimated that 4.1 percent of those on death row are falsely convicted. There can be no greater injustice than executing an innocent person because once the mistake is made it cannot be reversed. And, as public safety officials, we know that when the innocent are wrongfully convicted, the guilty go free.
We are also concerned that the death penalty runs the risk of compounding the pain of victims’ families. Capital cases are almost invariably drawn out over years or decades, during which time families are forced to continually relive the circumstances of their loved one’s death. We cannot claim to know what each family member wants, but we know that for many, the death penalty does little to contribute to a sense of justice.
Finally, we are concerned about the cost of capital punishment. Many believe that it is less expensive to execute someone than to imprison him or her for a long time. However, we know that seeking and imposing a death sentence is more expensive at every step, from arrest to incarceration. In North Carolina, these costs add up to nearly $11 million per year; in California, these extra costs set the state back more than $100 million per year.
We want Americans to know that the public safety community is not united in support of the death penalty. There are many reasons to be concerned about how this country administers the death penalty. Some are moral, some are practical. Our group represents all of these views, and runs the gamut from support with reservations and questions to outright opposition.
We will be speaking out around the country, before policymakers, the press, and the public — especially in those states where reforms or even repeal of the death penalty are being debated. We will also be reaching out to our colleagues in the public safety community, explaining our views and urging them to join with us in the PSODP effort. We look forward to adding our voices to the crucial conversation on the death penalty in the days and weeks ahead.
• Kathleen Dennehy served for more than 30 years in the Massachusetts Department of Correction, rising through the ranks to serve as commissioner. Mark Earley oversaw 36 executions while serving as attorney general for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Gerald Galloway capped more than 30 years in law enforcement by serving as the chief of police in Southern Pines, North Carolina.