Georgia juries haven’t delivered a death sentence in nearly five years, and if Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, has his way, it never will again. That’s because he recently filed House Bill 702, which would repeal the Georgia death penalty and replace it with a maximum sentence of life-without-parole.
A few years ago, a Republican-backed death penalty repeal bill in Georgia might have seemed unfathomable, but it’s not far-fetched any longer. Criminal justice reform is in vogue, it’s becoming commonplace for Republicans to sponsor death-penalty repeal bills, and capital punishment’s popularity and use have largely been on a downward trend.
While Harrell’s Catholic faith has influenced his views on capital punishment, he freely admits that the policy itself is a failure. “Despite attempts to perfect the death penalty, it is woefully imperfect,” the Snellville Republican declared.
Indeed, the Peach State has released six people from death row because juries wrongly convicted them and sentenced to them die. It has also executed people who might have been innocent. A government program that unnecessarily takes life, much less innocent life, understandably offends Rep. Harrell’s pro-life sensibilities. Until we can find a way to mitigate mistaken eyewitness testimony, faulty forensics, judicial misconduct and the flawed human element, wrongful convictions will regrettably continue.
What’s more, the death penalty’s costs have weighed heavily on Georgians. “Just look at the financial impact on Lincoln County, Georgia, and the subsequent fallout,” Harrell quipped. He’s referring to a case that occurred during the 1990s when a local prosecutor sought a death sentence for a South Carolina man. The proceedings became so expensive that the county was forced to raise taxes multiple times to fund the case. County commissioners eventually refused to continue bankrolling the case until a judge threw the commissioners in jail — forcing them to relent.
While there have been no comprehensive cost studies on Georgia’s capital punishment system specifically, findings from other states peg the death penalty’s price at millions more than life-without-parole. This is in large part thanks to the mandated legal proceedings and the “super due process” that is applied to capital punishment.
If the death penalty made considerable positive contributions to society, then perhaps one could try to justify these costs. Despite the high risks and financial investment, there is no credible evidence suggesting that the death penalty reliably serves as a general deterrent to murder. In fact, it appears to have little, if any, impact on homicide rates.
While capital punishment falls short as a constructive public safety measure, too frequently it also fails to provide the justice that murder victims’ families deserve. Because of the required legal hurdles, cases can take decades to resolve and require an untold number of hearings. This forces loved ones of the slain to live in uncertainty and, during each court appearance, relive the worst moments of their lives. Rep. Harrell calls this “a disservice to those in need and patently unfair.”
Life-without-parole cases, on the other hand, tend to have much shorter trials and fewer appealable issues. This means that pursuing life-without-parole is more likely to provide the swifter and surer justice that murder victims’ families desire.
Given all of this, it should come as little shock that a conservative such as Rep. Harrell would champion capital punishment’s demise. After all, “There’s absolutely nothing conservative about the death penalty,” Harrell contends. He’s not the proverbial lone voice crying out in the wilderness; other Republican stalwarts, including Colonel Oliver North and Jay Sekulow, have voiced their opposition, too. Once solidly buttressed by the political right, conservative death penalty support has faltered, which makes capital punishment’s future less certain — even in states like Georgia.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a longtime Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.