Thursday, August 26, 2010

A better choice

Another great opinion piece from our California colleagues! This one is from today's Sacramento Bee and is by Judy Kerr and Helene Burns, "Death Penalty is not worth the cost":

We are two women who share the worst kind of bond: We are the survivors of murder victims.

We are also registered nurses dedicated to helping people heal from trauma. We are parents seeking a safe world for our children. We are citizens interested in helping our communities. And we are people whose life experiences have taught us a great deal about how to make difficult choices.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently said that he has been fighting for the death penalty for the past five years and that courts have blocked his attempts, and he is now planning to proceed with spending billions to remodel death row at San Quentin. This wasted effort will be outdated before it is finished.

We believe we would all be better off if, instead, the governor fought to end the death penalty. Our personal and professional experiences have shown us that California would be better off if our legislators stopped spending taxpayers' dollars on pursuing death sentences for just a few killers. Instead, our limited resources should be invested in victim services to help victims in the aftermath of a crime, and in law enforcement units and state crime labs to increase the number of murders solved.

In 1985, Helene Burns' mother was murdered by her father in San Pedro. The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office initially considered the death penalty. The deputy DA explained to the family that pursuing the death penalty is much harder on the surviving families who have to go through years of appeals that death row inmates are entitled to before they are put to death.

He explained that life without the possibility of parole would be more expedient and that the family could have the justice they deserved. With input from the family, the DA's office opted to seek a life sentence.

Twenty-two months after her mother's murder, Helene's father was convicted. He is now serving a life sentence. Had the DA's office sought the death penalty, the case would have taken years and millions of dollars would have been spent before there was any resolution.

Helene was never advised about obtaining victim services, though she knows that she and her family would have benefited from such services had they known about them. As a psychiatric nurse in Austin, Texas, Helene has gone on to use her own tragedy to help others in her work by volunteering with victim services and with the Travis County Sheriff's Office CISM Team.

Judy Kerr's brother, Robert James Kerr, was murdered in July 2003 in Washington. Seven years later, his murder remains unsolved. Bob's case is a cold case.

After her brother's murder, Judy was given a victim services brochure and told to call and "open a case." Judy inquired about much-needed grief counseling for her then 8-year-old daughter, but was told that only first-degree relatives qualified for services.

She found counseling on her own and submitted the bills to the victims compensation fund for reimbursement. After several appeals, her request was denied because she had not accessed her personal health insurance, which, in her case, had a four-month waiting period for grief counseling.

The struggles we encountered following the murders of our loved ones are not uncommon. Because victim service providers are so underfunded, they are characterized by bureaucratic delays, lack of publicity on where and how to obtain services, and inadequate services for those who have obtained them. We have both met countless surviving family members who have had trouble obtaining necessary services.

In these economic times, California simply does not have resources to fund every program. We must make tough choices. If we replaced the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, California could save millions of dollars that could be spent on law enforcement, DNA testing, and grief counseling and other victim services.

Unfortunately, our legislators choose to crunch family members of murder victims out of the numbers every budget season. Last year, the Legislature took $50 million from the victims compensation fund.

We must stop wasting resources on the death penalty and put them where they count.

Life without parole is not only a cheaper alternative to the death penalty, it is a safer alternative. It removes killers from our streets. Forever. It also avoids turning killers into media stars and ensures that victims' families do not have to go through years of appeals.

The cost of keeping the death penalty and rebuilding death row is one that we simply cannot afford. We hope that this year the governor finally recognizes that for victims and for all citizens, there is a better choice.

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