Pennsylvania’s Broken Death Penalty

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A state commission appointed to study Pennsylvania’s death penalty system released its report late last month, almost five years after its original deadline.

The 280-page report was the result of a seven-year effort by the Joint State Government Commission, which was composed of four senators and an advisory committee of prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, and at least one victim’s family member.

Among the findings:

  • As in most, if not all death penalty states, capital punishment is much more expensive than a sentence of life without parole.
  • As in other parts of the country, in Pennsylvania, “A given defendant’s chance of having the death penalty sought, retracted, or imposed depends on where that defendant is prosecuted and tried.” It was noted that in “many counties… the death penalty is not utilized at all. In others, it is sought frequently.”
  • Approximately 25 percent of prisoners on death row have an active mental disorder, with approximately 43 percent in need of mental health treatment. (Compared to 4.2 percent of U.S. adults with serious mental illness and 18.3 percent with some kind of mental illness.)
  • Approximately 14 percent of those on death row qualify as intellectually disabled — between two and three times the percentage with that low of an IQ in the general population — and “could be constitutionally ineligible for this sentence.”
  • “It’s impossible to read this report and not come away thinking that a life without parole sentence would be fairer, quicker, and more cost-efficient than capital punishment,” said Marc Bookman, co-Director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation.

Some of the report’s recommendations include:

  • Changing the law to allow judges to determine intellectual disability at the pre-trial phase. (Current practice requires the jury to determine it at post-trial phase.)
  • Disqualifying a mentally ill defendant as eligible for the death penalty, and finding those who are competent to stand trial but become mentally ill afterward should be exempt from execution.
  • Creating a statewide, state-funded capital defender office “to represent all persons charged with or convicted of capital crimes at the trial, appellate, and state post-conviction levels.”
  • Enacting a Racial Justice Act to “statutorily allow death sentences to be challenged on a statistical basis.”
  • Amending the law on aggravating and mitigating circumstances to “reduce any significant difference in the crimes” committed by those sentenced to death and those sentenced to life without parole.

The question now is what Gov. Tom Wolf, who imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2015, shortly after taking office, will do now. His opponent in the November election, Republican Scott Wagner, is a staunch supporter of capital punishment.

“The real questions are whether the Commonwealth has the political will to make the system fair and whether keeping capital punishment is worth the cost of fixing it,” said Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham.

Pennsylvania’s last execution was in 1999. There are 150 prisoners on death row.

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