Since the Supreme Court in Gregg v. Georgia overruled a ban on capital punishment, inmates from all across the country have spent years, if not decades waiting for their execution date. There are currently sixty-one (61) inmates on Federal Death Row and about two thousand-seven hundred (2,700) inmates on state death row, some of whom have been there for almost twenty years. Every additional day federal inmates spend waiting for their execution is another day taxpayers spend money to take care of these inmates.
Recently, there have been calls from both sides of the aisle hoping to reform this country’s capital punishment system for two main reasons: first, to limit costs on taxpayers, and second, to ensure that inmates are not wrongfully executed. While the overriding trend in America has moved towards the abolition of capital punishment, both liberals and conservatives should acknowledge that capital punishment is here to stay for a little while longer. The current system is simply broken. No longer should we ask taxpayers to support rightfully adjudicated death row inmates for years while other, wrongfully convicted inmates wait for someone to recognize them.
So how do we fix it? Well, the simple answer stems from Congress. Under Article III of the Constitution, the Framers provided that Congress has the power to create federal courts. Just as Congress has created district courts, circuit courts, and specialty courts such as the FISA Court, Congress has the power to create an additional court (the “Capital Punishment Court”) that would specialize in hearing capital punishment appeals. Similarly to Congress giving the Chief Justice the power to appoint justices to the FISA Court, he could appoint justices to the Capital Punishment Court through the same process. This Capital Punishment Court would be composed of three (3) to five (5) Justices whose job would be to listen to, analyze, and hear capital punishment appeals. However, unlike the FISA Court, which is closed to the public, the Capital Punishment Court would be open, allowing anyone to view the proceedings. By creating such a court, Congress would be able to streamline the death penalty appellate process and provide benefits for both Democrats and Republicans.
The creation of the Capital Punishment Court would place a spotlight on death penalty cases around the country and ensure that every case that is heard by the Capital Punishment Court is given the utmost time and attention. This extra attention should limit the amount of human error involved in this process, and prevent innocent people from being executed. In addition, creating a Capital Punishment Court will likely reduce the large burden currently placed on the dockets of district and circuit court judges.
By having the Capital Punishment Court focus solely on federal death penalty cases the Court would be tasked with hearing only sixty-one (61) current cases. This likely means that inmates would no longer have to wait months, if not years for their first appellate hearing. If Congress creates this Court, it could reduce the amount of time inmates spend on death row from over a decade to less than five years.
However, this reform cuts both ways. Inmates deserving of the death penalty likely would be executed sooner, and inmates wrongfully convicted will be freed faster. If the amount of time spent on death row is reduced, a large portion of taxpayer money would be free to use on other programs that directly benefit the American people. This solution would accomplish goals from both sides of the aisle.
This administration has made it a priority to reform our criminal justice system, and, by implementing such a reform, the administration will show that it is serious about streamlining and reforming an archaic process.
While this solution is much easier to accomplish on the federal level, each state may do so as well. States may accomplish the same results by following the federal model mentioned above. If individual states that have not yet abolished capital punishment followed their constitutions to create this special intermediary appellate court, it would have the same effect as it does federally on over two thousand inmates. Creating the Capital Punishment Court would allow states to streamline their judiciary system and remove a large amount of pending cases in front of appellate justices.
States are moving towards complete abolition, but it is also important to reform an archaic system while we still have it. It is time for Congress to place an emphasis on releasing wrongfully convicted death row inmates, while streamlining the process for those who were properly adjudicated. Through the creation of Capital Punishment Courts, both Congress and individual states will be able to cut costs and reform their respective judicial systems.