Earlier this year, Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) voted for H.R. 115, the Thin Blue Line Act. If it becomes law, prosecutors could more easily seek the death penalty against people who kill or attempt to kill police, firefighters, and other first responders.
Paulsen’s vote is misguided for a number of reasons. First, the justice system is imperfect, and sometimes innocent people are put on death row. According to one study, one in every 25 people sentenced to death are innocent. In an interview with Newsweek, Samuel R. Gross, the study’s lead author, said “…A surprising number of innocent people are sentenced to death. … Some of them no doubt have been executed.” And execution is final. But when someone is sentenced to prison, there’s always the possibility that new evidence could later exonerate them.
Second, there’s no apparent impetus for such a law. As Eugene Kiely of FactCheck.org reported last year, “…The number of law enforcement fatalities has declined substantially in recent years.” Comparing the period from 2009 to 2015 to the previous seven years (2002 to 2008), Kiely found a 17 percent decrease in law enforcement fatalities. “In fact,” he wrote, “the 109 total law enforcement fatalities in 2013 was the fewest since 1956.” (The number of Americans killed by police, on the other hand, hovers somewhere around 1,000 people per year.)
On top of that, the death penalty is incredibly expensive. According to Donald McCartin, a California judge who has sent nine men to death row, “It’s 10 times more expensive to kill them than to keep them alive.” As Kelly Erb of Forbes wrote in 2014:
“…Capital cases (those where the death penalty is a potential punishment) are more expensive and take much more time to resolve than non-capital cases. According to a study by the Kansas Judicial Council, defending a death penalty case costs about four times as much as defending a case where the death penalty is not considered. In terms of costs, a report of the Washington State Bar Association found that death penalty cases are estimated to generate roughly $470,000 in additional costs to the prosecution and defense versus a similar case without the death penalty; that doesn’t take into account the cost of court personnel. Even when a trial wasn’t necessary (because of a guilty plea), those cases where the death penalty was sought still cost about twice as much as those where death was not sought.”
Combined with all the money spent on housing and appeals, death penalty cases are by far the most expensive court cases in the country. So it’s more than a bit ironic that Rep. Paulsen and his Republican colleagues (only four of whom voted against H.R. 115), who pride themselves on fiscal responsibility, would support a bill that place an even greater financial burden on American taxpayers.
Plus, all 50 states already have laws that increase sentencing for those who target police. This was the point that most critics of the bill pointed to in their analyses. The American Civil Liberties Union, for instance, expressed strong opposition to the act, saying in a statement, “…Expanding the number of aggravating factors that would subject a person to the death penalty is unnecessary and duplicative, counterproductive to improving law enforcement and community relations, and unlikely to prevent future violence against police.”
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund agreed. In a statement, the LDF said, “While LDF supports efforts to advance responsible policing practices that ensure the safety and wellness of both law enforcement and the communities they serve, H.B. 115 is an ill-advised and duplicative proposal that will not accomplish this goal.”
Rep. Paulsen’s vote on the Thin Blue Line Act offers nothing but more lives lost and more financial waste.
Featured image via YouTube.