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The United States Justice Department spent $10 million on a death penalty trial for mobster Vincent “Vinny Gorgeous” Basciano, who is about as despicable a thug and murderer as one can imagine.
Whether one supports or opposes the death penalty, two aspects of this capital prosecution ought to command our attention: 1. Earlier this month, it took a New York-based federal jury only 2 1/2 hours to reject the urgings of federal prosecutors and decide on a sentence of life imprisonment without parole instead of death; and 2. Basciano was already serving a sentence of life without parole before federal prosecutors decided to put him on trial for his life.
Talk about futility and waste!
We tend to think about crime and punishment in the abstract. In reality, however, how we respond to crime and violence has real-life consequences. Does Vincent Basciano deserve death? That’s an interesting philosophical question that has nothing to do with the aim of securing public safety.
Maybe we should start with a different question: If given $10 million to keep New Yorkers safer, how should we spend it?
Particularly in times of fiscal crisis, $10 million for a death penalty trial seems outrageous – especially in New York where juries have been historically reluctant to impose death. (New York federal juries have imposed only one death sentence since 1955 – and even that one was overturned on appeal.) Why roll the dice at $10 million a pop?
Maybe it’s easy to gamble when the possible gains are political/institutional and when the possible losses will be covered by someone else (already overburdened taxpayers).
But to really assess the magnitude of the loss in this case, we need to take a look at items in the budget that have been cut recently: layoffs of police, cutbacks in drug treatment, mental health, youth violence prevention, domestic violence and crime victims’ assistance programs that are proven to save lives and to heal the wounded.
The Boys and Girls Clubs of the Capital region may lose up to three community centers as a result of funding shortfalls. The highly successful SNUG anti-violence program has been defunded in the state budget. Schenectady’s critical teen anti-suicide project is scheduled to lose its funding at the end of the year.
The $10 million federal showcase trial didn’t cost Vinny Gorgeous his life. But how many unknown lives did it sacrifice through the squandering of scarce resources?