Monday, April 04, 2005

Death row phenomenon

When we sentence people to death, we sentence them to just that -- death. We do not sentence them to be tortured while awaiting death.

So how are we to react when many -- no, most -- people under sentence of death spend more than a decade waiting for their sentence to be carried out? Some people argue that we should have a shortened appeals process. But shorten the process and you will surely increase the number of mistakes we are making. And in our democracy, complete with rights of due process and the unshakeable belief that we must not incarcerate innocent people, much less execute them, one mistake is too many.

I mention this because the Death Penalty Information Center has just published a fascinating research paper that examines this topic. The paper begins:

The length of time prisoners spend on death row in the United States before their executions has recently emerged as a topic of interest in the debate about the death penalty. The discussion has been spurred by the scheduled execution of Michael Ross, a Connecticut inmate who has been on death row for 17 years, and by the writings of two Supreme Court Justices who have urged the Court to consider this issue.

Death row inmates in the U.S. typically spend over a decade awaiting execution. Some prisoners have been on death row for well over 20 years.

During this time, they are generally isolated from other prisoners, excluded from prison educational and employment programs, and sharply restricted in terms of visitation and exercise, spending as much as 23 hours a day alone in their cells.

This raises the question of whether death row prisoners are receiving two distinct punishments: the death sentence itself, and the years of living in conditions tantamount to solitary confinement – a severe form of punishment that may be used only for very limited periods for general-population prisoners.

Moreover, unlike general-population prisoners, even in solitary confinement, death-row inmates live in a state of constant uncertainty over when they will be executed. For some death row inmates, this isolation and anxiety results in a sharp deterioration in their mental status.

It concludes:

The length of time that U.S. inmates spend on death row has gotten increasingly longer in recent years, and raises questions about the constitutionality of this added punishment. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed this issue, it has been cited as a serious concern by death penalty experts in the U.S. and by courts outside the U.S. Shortening the time on death row would be difficult without either a significant allocation of new resources or a risky curtailment of necessary reviews.

To read the entire report, go here.

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