Capital punishment debate is unwarranted

The Grand Stairway at the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Grand Stairway at the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Iowa lawmakers shouldn’t reinstate the death penalty, or waste time discussing it.

Proponents insist the death penalty is needed as a deterrent. Yet, FBI statistics show the opposite: States with the death penalty have higher murder rates than those without.

Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, in an effort to illustrate that perpetrators rarely consider such consequences, previously has shared the story of four people who murdered two elderly women. The group killed one woman in Iowa before driving the other across the state line to commit the second murder in Missouri, a death penalty state.

Capital punishment is, by design, more expensive than life without parole.

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer noted, “In this world, or at least in this nation, we can have a death penalty that at least arguably serves legitimate penological purposes or we can have a procedural system that at least arguably seeks reliability and fairness in the death penalty’s application. We cannot have both.”

The average delay between sentencing and execution now is more than 17 years; an inevitable outcome due to needed “reliability and fairness.” Many inmates on death row succumb to natural causes before they face state executioners.

Other factors — psychological tolls on jurors and state officials tasked with imposing the death penalty, prison infrastructure needs, disproportionate application on racial minorities and the poor, difficulties in obtaining lethal injection pharmaceuticals, the ever-present possibility of executing the innocent — also must be weighed.

In addition to these ongoing national debates, state lawmakers cannot ignore the limitations past budgetary decisions have placed on state institutions. Legislators must decide, for example, if the cash-strapped Iowa judicial branch is realistically able to absorb such an added and monumental duty.

Iowa courts employ 182 fewer people today than one year ago; 115 essential positions remain unfilled. More judges will retire this year than in previous years, and fewer private attorneys are seeking the bench. By its own admission, the judicial branch cannot currently provide residents equitable services.


Stagnant funding also hampers the State Public Defender’s Office, which is constitutionally mandated to provide publicly funded legal assistance to low-income people accused of crimes. Even without capital punishment, demands on the public defender and indigent defense budgets have outpaced allotted resources.

From understaffed prison facilities to Iowa courts’ reduced national rankings to continued overrepresentation of black Iowans in correctional institutions, there are many justice topics legislators should address during their limited time in Des Moines. Capital punishment, however, isn’t among them.

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