Cash-strapped states are eyeing what some may think is an unlikely target for their budget axes: the death penalty. In what is likely to become a heated debate over policy, CNN is reporting that some states have introduced legislation to "take the death penalty off the books over financial concerns."
The subject of the "cost" of the death penalty is nothing new to either side of the debate. However, hard numbers produced by states on the actual costs of seeking the death penalty are now being thrown into the discussion. For example, in Kansas a bill has been introduced to abolish the death penalty in that state, as noted by CNN:
"'Because of the downturn in the national economy, we are facing one of the largest budget deficits in our history,' state Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Republican, said in an opinion piece posted on TheKansan.com Friday. 'What is certain is we are all going to have to look at new and creative ways to fund state and community programs and services.'
The state would save more than $500,000 per case by not seeking the death penalty, McGinn wrote, money that could be used for 'prevention programs, community corrections and other programs to decrease future crimes against society.'"
On the other side, Kansas Attorney General Steve Six claimed the repeal was a "flawed idea" because "opponents don't take into account many cost savings associated with having the death penalty as an option." The Sacramento Union published a piece on a study released last week by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) which pointed out an oft-ignored cost-saving factor of the death penalty. Specifically, in "states where the death penalty is the maximum punishment, a larger number of murder defendants are willing to plead guilty and receive a life sentence," thus resulting in savings by avoiding expensive trials altogether in those cases.
As noted by both sides in the debate, it is difficult to pinpoint the cost of the death penalty if an arguably "interested party" is the one conducting the research. Regardless, some states have been making increased efforts to do just that. For example, based on other states' "[t]horough, unbiased study and review" of their justice systems, California's Senate created the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice to review its own.
The Death Penalty Information Center summarized the Commission's findings on the death penalty as follows:
- Using conservative rough projections, the Commission estimates the annual costs of the present (death penalty) system to be $137 million per year.
- The cost of the present system with reforms recommended by the Commission to ensure a fair process would be $232.7 million per year.
- The cost of a system in which the number of death-eligible crimes was significantly narrowed would be $130 million per year.
- The cost of a system which imposes a maximum penalty of lifetime incarceration instead of the death penalty would be $11.5 million per year.
However, the Commission's findings have been criticized by studies such as the CJLF's, and other states such as Georgia, Texas, and Virginia appear to be looking elsewhere for their budget cuts as officials told CNN they intend to continue to seek the death penalty in the appropriate cases. Although a bill to abolish the death penalty is before the Texas legislature, a county District Attorney Pat Lykos told CNN she intends to proceed with the nearly 200 pending death penalty cases she has. Also, earlier this month Virginia expanded "capital punishment to include those who assist in a murder, and those who kill an auxiliary police officer or on-duty fire marshal."
In sum, even though the economy is putting the squeeze on states' budgets, it appears the debate on the death penalty is far from over, as Lykos told CNN, "We will spare no expense. We will go after them. Justice has no price tag."