Florida holds the dubious honor of wrongfully convicting the largest number of innocent people put on death row. Since 1973, the Sunshine State wrongfully incarcerated and released twenty-three people set for a state sanctioned killing. And nationwide, 140 people in twenty-six states have been exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted and sent to death row. If this tells independent voters anything, it’s that the criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform, with capital punishment leading the way.
It would seem that miscarriages of justice of such a magnitude would lead Florida policy makers and political leaders to take measures to ensure that number declines. Despite this grisly scenario, Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott recently eliminated the funding necessary to keep the Florida Innocence Commission alive. Created by the Florida Supreme Court, the commission is tasked with advocating for reforms after examining wrongful convictions by “studying false eyewitness identifications, interrogation techniques, false confessions, the use of informants, the handling of forensic evidence, attorney competence and conduct, the processing of cases and the administration of the death penalty.”
But with one stroke of the pen, Scott nixed the Commission by vetoing the funds the legislature appropriated for it – which last year stood at $200,000, a drop in the bucket for a state with a 2013 budget of about $70 billion. This isn’t the first time Scott meddled with attempts at reforming Florida’s criminal justice system. Earlier this year he vetoed a nearly unanimous piece of legislation (combined House and Senate vote 152-4 in favor) that would move non-violent drug offenders out of prison and into treatment programs after completing half of their sentence.
While Florida moves in reverse on remedying these problems, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Illinois all eliminated the death penalty in the last five years, with Californians deciding this fall. This is no doubt a response to the alarming trend of those wrongfully convicted and sent to death row, only to be later exonerated. Moreover, the recent high profile cases of Corey Maye, who was released from death row after ten years, and Cameron Todd Willingham, a likely innocent man executed in 2004 in Texas, shed further light on the manifest need to eliminate capital punishment and alter the way we think about criminal justice.
“The punishment of death is pernicious to society, from the example of barbarity it affords. If the passions, or necessity of war, have taught men to shed the blood of their fellow creatures, the laws which are intended to moderate the ferocity of mankind, should not increase it by examples of barbarity, the more horrible, as this punishment is usually attended with formal pageantry. Is it not absurd, that the laws, which detect and punish homicide, should, in order to prevent murder, publicly commit murder themselves?”
If there is one thing that people of all political persuasions and philosophies can agree on it should be this: the greatest and most serious deprivation of liberty that the government can engage in is killing its own citizens. If the government attempts to use this deprivation, it should be judged only by the strictest scrutiny and standards. There is no recourse for the wrongfully executed. If the death penalty is going to be used to carry out state sanctioned killings, shouldn’t we at least know whether the individual in question is actually guilty of the crime they are accused of committing?
Although Gov. Scott says the goal of his budget is to “reduce the size of government,” which I’m all for (even more so than Scott), maybe someone should tell him that the criminal justice system is part of the government. Trials, prosecutors, appeals, prisons, and prison guards all cost the taxpayers of Florida money, while more wrongful convictions mean more prisoners – leading to more prisons and corrections personnel, thereby increasing the size of government. In the final analysis, the scope of government cannot get any more intrusive than a seemingly uncritical belief in a process that gives the state the solemn power to extinguish the lives of its citizens – especially when accompanied by the elimination of a key mechanism for redress the wrongfully convicted once possessed against such an awesome power.
CORRECTION (6/12/12): By: Brad Schlesinger
"The commission was set to expire this year. So it actually hadn’t requested any funding. That means the legislature didn’t budget any funding, which of course means Gov. Scott didn’t veto it."
I’d like to apologize to Gov. Scott for attributing the commission’s demise to him, as well as the implication that he wasn’t concerned with those wrongfully convicted. I’d also like to apologize to everyone who read the article. I still believe the work done by the commission is extremely vital and regardless of the reason for its dissolution, I wish to see it continue its task of looking into wrongful convictions. However, my primary point remains that the death penalty and capital sentencing process remains flawed public policy.
Regardless of whether or not Scott actually had anything to do with the commission coming to an end, capital punishment is still the greatest deprivation of liberty the government can engage in. And granting the state the power to kill its own citizens is the epitome of the big government that the type of conservatives who support the death penalty typically decry. It is a cruel, barbaric, and irreversible denial of both due process and basic civil liberties. Capital punishment also ends up costing the taxpayers of Florida money. It is exceedingly expensive to execute offenders when compared to cases where the punishment sought is a life sentence. While the commission may lapse, by no fault of Scott's, the death penalty has lost one more check against abuse and oversight in Florida, and that is the problem.