Monday, February 16, 2009

Amid scramble to cut costs, states look at killing the death penalty

As the economy continues to slump, states are still looking for ways to tighten their belts. The St. Petersburg Times characterized the trend in an editorial published last Wednesday, saying, "Florida's budget crisis may bring a modicum of reasonableness to the debate over criminal justice policy." (It's sad to think that the debate is lacking even "a modicum of reasonableness" without the specter of bankruptcy looming on the horizon for state governments.) The Times is also admirable for pointing out that this is not a left-right political issue, but one that should matter to anyone concerned about the fiscal solvency of their state government:

Instead of the "tough on crime" mantra that politicians spout to win elections and that usually leads to more prison beds, suggestions are cropping up for alternatives as a way to save big bucks. These ideas are not percolating up from liberal sources alone. Some of the most ardent supporters for a more measured approach to crime and criminals include a conservative Republican lawmaker and a fiscal watchdog group.
Victor Crist, R-Tampa, Florida, has proposed measures that intend "to conserve spending on corrections and reduce recidivism while not jeopardizing public safety." They include:
Establishing an experimental diversion program at buildings vacated by the Department of Juvenile Justice to give nonviolent felons access to substance abuse programs and life-skills training.

Giving judges discretion to sanction probation violators to more appropriate settings than a maximum security prison bed when their infractions are minor, including the option of expanded electronic monitoring.

Creating a "community-based incarceration" program for select inmates who are serving the last year of their sentence and have successfully participated in a work-release program.
Proposals such as Crist's do a great job of balancing public safety against fiscal responsibility and the need to demonstrate a reasonable amount of compassion toward convicts. These proposals deserve the support of the general public, and especially advocates for criminal justice reform.

But another, more noteworthy measure gaining political traction around the country is the movement to abolish the death penalty, simply because of its costs. According to the Lawrence Journal-World & News, death penalty abolitionists in Kansas say that "given the current budget problems, the death penalty was too expensive and unnecessary because Kansas law has an alternative — life in prison without parole." (This article out of Sioux City, Iowa, adds Colorado and South Dakota to the list of states considering abolition. Montana, as well.)

A telling note from the same article, which should be noted by those who push back against traditional cost-comparisons of death and non-death cases:
In a 2003 state audit report that looked at 22 first-degree murder cases, the median cost for cases in which the death penalty was imposed was $1.2 million, compared with $740,000 for the median non-death penalty cases reviewed. The calculations included the cost of long-term incarceration... The report said numerous factors made death penalty cases cost more, such as lengthier court trials and appeals, and hiring more experts.
From a Montana paper,
There is a widely held myth that the death penalty is cheaper than life without parole. The reality, however, is just the opposite.
State Sen. Caroline McGinn, R-Sedgwick, introduced the Kansas bill to abolish the death penalty and said, “We need to be thinking outside the box,” when it comes to saving money. (Nevermind that, to me, joining the rest of the civilized world by doing away with capital punishment has always been very much ":on the table" and "inside the box.")

Meanwhile, Virginia is moving in the opposite direction, looking to expand its death penalty legislation and making it easier for, say, accomplices to be sentenced to death. Nevermind studies from Massachusetts, New Jersey, Florida, California and North Carolina quoted in this article that all remind us that the Old Dominion is moving in decidedly the wrong direction:
Most recently, a Maryland commission charged with reviewing the state’s capital punishment system concluded that “death penalty cases are more costly than non-death penalty cases” and recommended that the state discontinue executions in favor of the life-without parole sentencing option. This echoes a New Jersey commission’s 2007 finding concerning the prohibitive costs of capital punishment. For example, a Duke University study determined that North Carolina incurred $2.16 million per execution over the cost of condemning a convicted murderer to life in prison. (It bears noting that over the last 32 years, Virginia has executed 102 individuals. Assuming a comparable expense rate for the Commonwealth's executions, the cost of Virginia's state-sanctioned deaths comes in at $220 million total, or about $7 million per year.)
So, the Macon County News laments, a time when Virginia lawmakers are being forced to eliminate thousands of jobs, slash agencies' spending by 15 percent and trim $800 million from K-12 education and Medicaid programs for the indigent, elderly and disabled, the last thing our representatives need to be doing is adding to the tax burden by expanding the scope of the death penalty.
Similarly, the St. Petersburg Times points out that "every dollar saved by building fewer prisons is a dollar that can be used to spare public education and social services from deeper spending cuts."

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