The Death Penalty Cost Argument: A Murder Victim Family Perspective
Originally posted on the California Progress Report.
My brother, Robert James Kerr, was murdered in 2003. Today, I am one of thousands of murder victim family members who oppose the death penalty. I actively work for alternatives to execution to honor my brother’s memory.
Last month, Governor Quinn of Illinois signed legislation ending the death penalty. The Illinois legislature follows New Jersey and New Mexico in replacing the death penalty with alternatives. Sixteen states across the country now embrace an alternative criminal justice policy that recognizes the needs of murder victim family members while leaving funds on the table for effective public safety programs.
They have acknowledged the reality of an inherently human and imperfect criminal justice system. At least six other states may follow the lead of Illinois and repeal their death penalty statues, including Connecticut.
There are and always will be murder victim family members who support the death penalty. Today in Connecticut, the horrific murder of the family of Dr. Petit has captured the headlines and fears of the general public. Dr. Petit and I have much in common. We understand the horror of violent loss, we know that there will be no closure to our experience, and we desperately want justice and punishment for the criminals that have taken our loved ones and scarred us forever. But unlike Dr. Petit, I believe the death penalty is a failed policy which strips away funding from solving cold cases, victims’ services and crime prevention.
Murder victim family members who support the death penalty and the many of thousands of murder victim family members who support alternatives to the death penalty differ in the understanding that the death penalty is a failed policy. No matter how right it might feel, the death penalty offers nothing to heal the complex grief of survivors, while it takes real money away from solving cold cases and getting killers off our streets.
Most murder victim family members who support the death penalty believe, inaccurately, that the death penalty would be cheaper if we would just execute death row inmates more quickly. That might be true if we could be certain that everyone on death row was guilty. Tragically, we will never have that certainty. The possibility of executing an innocent person is real and it is the reason for the lengthy appeals in death penalty cases. Taking care not to execute the innocent inevitably requires a system that costs much more money than life without parole. Whether we like it or not, cost is a factor that will never go away.
For the past four years, I have honored the memory of my brother’s life by working against the death penalty. While my family waits for some clue or some new information in his cold case to lead to the arrest, prosecution and punishment of my brother’s killer, billions of criminal justice dollars in the U.S. are wasted on people already behind bars.
I accept with compassion and without judgment that some murder victim family members will always support the execution of guilty murderers. I understand and have shared their rage in hearing that a much-loved family member has been violently assaulted and left dead.
I also know that with the entirety of my being and in honor of my brother’s life, I will never support a system that has the potential to execute someone who was no guiltier than my brother when he was murdered eight years ago. We cannot afford to perfect the death penalty in California or Connecticut. We cannot afford a perfect death penalty in the U.S. I cannot support an imperfect death penalty.
We have an alternative: life without possibility of parole provides swift and certain justice, without the risk of executing an innocent person and at a fraction of the costs of the death penalty system. It’s time to end the charade and bring justice to more families like mine.
Photo credit: California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty
Judy Kerr is the Northern California Outreach Coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.