Recently a number of residents in the valley met together to discuss abolition of the death penalty in Montana. When the Montana Legislature meets again, there will be another effort to change our State’s laws to a less expensive and more compassionate policy.
One of the many facts that we learned was that there are two men on death row in Montana right now, who have been there twenty-five years. There are at least three issues attached to this fact:
One, we taxpayers have been paying for repeated appeals, continuances, hearings and attorney’s fees for all that time (hundreds of thousands of dollars). (In a majority of cases specially-trained public defenders are arguing for the defendant against county attorneys—both sides being paid for by the taxpayer.)
Two, the families of the victims must periodically engage in those court processes, not really being able to move on from their grieving.
And three, while on death row these men have no access to the other redemptive or rehabilitative programs that other prisoners have access to. They have no social contact, no outdoor exercise, and very little hope. Consequently if one or both men are adjudicated ‘not guilty’ in the future and released, they will continue to be a drain on taxpayer resources because they are deeply institutionalized and no longer able to be productive citizens.
As Tom Biglen, former Sweetgrass County Attorney, stated to the Montana House Judiciary Committee in 2009, “Funds that could have gone for law enforcement to provide public safety instead go to the cost of death penalty prosecutions, determination of penalty, and appeals, and appeals and appeals.” Not just any attorney may represent a person in a death penalty case. The attorney must be “death penalty certified.” And there is a unique judicial process that must be followed including two trials before sentencing. Another surprising fact we learned was that only twenty percent of the time are death sentences actually carried out from all capital cases. Most are reduced to life sentences.
The whole deterrence argument doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny. Heinous crimes are not committed by people who are thinking logically. The research actually reflects just the opposite: regions with the most executions also have the highest murder rates (FBI’s 2006 Uniform Crime Report).
Beliefs about the death penalty vary widely. The church community, however, is unanimous that serving a life sentence is the more compassionate route, for the criminal, for the families involved, and for the professionals who administer the executions, or injections. It is no surprise that The Montana Association of Churches and the Montana Catholic Conference are both part of the Montana Abolition Coalition (www.mtabolitionco.org).
There will be another opportunity to have a conversation about the death penalty on March 27 (location to be announced). I invite folks to attend, express themselves, listen and learn. As a caring community we can discuss this issue intelligently with our legislators and become the next state to abolish the death penalty.