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December 28, 2009

New Duke study claims $11 million in yearly savings if NC eliminated death penalty

This effective local article, which is headlined "Study: End death cases, save money," reports on a new study coming out of Duke University claiming that North Carolina could save millions by eliminating the death penalty. Here are some of the details:

If the state stopped trying to execute killers, it would free up $11 million a year, according to a study by a Duke University economist published this month.

There is little return on the dollars spent on seeking the death penalty, says Philip Cook, an economist at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy. Of the 1,034 people charged with murder in North Carolina in 2005 and 2006, prosecutors initially sought the death penalty against about a quarter of them. Only 11, though, were sentenced to death for their crimes. "The idea that the state could spend so much money on someone they think is completely undeserving is very interesting," Cook said. "I have to believe that there are some people that would find this cost issue irritating."

Cook's study was published this month in American Law and Economics Review. Cook's last study on the cost of the death penalty in North Carolina was published in 1993. In that study, he estimated an annual savings of $4 million if the death penalty were not an option.

Cook's findings will be presented to lawmakers, and opponents of the death penalty will likely use them to argue that it isn't cost-effective.... Cook argues that the rarity of death sentences undermines the deterrent factor. By his math, the odds of a killer getting the death penalty are less than 1 percent.

Rep. Paul Stam, a Wake County Republican, said criminals don't calculate odds and aren't swayed by them. "Criminals pay more attention to TV and newspaper headlines than to statistics," said Stam, a proponent of the death penalty. "Maybe that is why many of them get caught."

Here and across the country, the death penalty is on the decline. No one has been lethally injected in North Carolina since August 2006, and the 163 inmates now on death row face an uncertain end.

Cook's $11 million figure is a net savings. He assumed everyone currently on death row would be imprisoned for all of their living days, and also factored the estimated costs of appealing convictions of life in prison. Cook did not, however, include savings by prosecutors being spared additional preparation and court time of a capital trial.

It's unclear what bearing, if any, a cost analysis of the punishment will have on its future. "Whenever it comes to reducing or changing punishments, there's a lot of politics and public opinion involved," said Rep. Deborah Ross, a Wake County Democrat. "It's never, ever a dollar-and-cents issue."

At least two states, New Jersey and New Mexico, have abolished the death penalty in recent years, citing cost as a primary reason. Maryland, too, has considered eliminating the death penalty; officials there have significantly limited the number of murders that can be prosecuted capitally in hopes of reducing costs.

Capital trials cost five times more than first-degree murder trials in which the death penalty is not pursued. A trial averages $116,400 in costs for the defendant, Cook found, compared with $18,600 for a non-capital murder trial. Trials also hijack a prosecutor's office for weeks, a cost that's hard to estimate because it involves salaries for people who handle other matters besides capital murder trials. The average capital trial lasts nearly three weeks, compared to a week for murder trials without the death penalty....

Prosecutors often argue that the option of pursuing the death penalty is a bargaining chip that allows them to secure a plea to the lesser punishment of life in prison without setting foot in a courtroom. Cook found, however, that it was cheaper to try a case in which prosecutors never sought the death penalty than to negotiate a capital case and avoid going to trial. That is due in part to a North Carolina law requiring defendants facing the death penalty to have at least two attorneys.

Some recent related posts on the costs of capital punsihment:

December 28, 2009 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

December 27, 2009

A thoughtful defense of the SCOTUS docket status quo

Thanks to this postat Concurring Opinions, I saw that Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III has a great new essay assailing arguments that assail the current docket and case selection process of the Supreme Court. This piece, which is titled "If It Ain’t Broke . . ." and is available here at 119 YLJ ONLINE 67, gets started this way:

“The most important thing we do,” Justice Brandeis once remarked, “is not doing.”  Alexander Bickel showed long ago how the Supreme Court’s discretionary certiorari jurisdiction was the lynchpin of those “passive virtues” that are essential to principled government.  Indeed, the cautious exercise of the certiorari jurisdiction may be as important to judicial self-restraint as the Court’s decisions on the merits.  We should therefore view skeptically any attempt to alter the Supreme Court’s case selection process.  Although critics in recent years have lodged various complaints about the Court’s docket, the solutions being urged upon us will neither cure the alleged ills nor avoid significant collateral damage.  The reformers make two basic assertions: first, that the Supreme Court should decide more cases, and second, that the mechanism by which the Supreme Court selects cases for review should be changed.  Both are wrong.

This piece is a must-read for anyone intrigued by debates over the Supreme Court's docket (a topic I have explored with respect to the death penalty).  Though I do not agree with everything Judge Wilkinson says, I agree with most of what he says.  Of particular importance is his emphasis on possible unintended and harmful consequences from a dramatic modification of the SCOTUS case selection process.

As I have noted in a few posts in recent months, the addition of two new Justices with professional histories as prosecutors seems to have helped the Court appreciate the importance of taking more consequential and interesting criminal cases.  Thus, while I was troubled by the SCOTUS docket a few years ago, I am now a real fan of the SCOTUS docket status quo.  Still, ever the fickle commentator, I might change my tune again if sentencing cases do not remain a regular feature of the Court's docket.

December 27, 2009 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

The same old debates about a new federal sentencing bill

A helpful reader forwarded to me this effective local newspaper article reporting on two "classic" sentencing perspectives concerning a new federal sentencing bill.  The piece is headlined "Gang-prevention bill hits a snag with a co-sponsor's criticism," and here are excerpts:

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott's two-year effort to refocus the battle against juvenile and gang crime to prevention programs that would cost billions of dollars appears to be picking up steam. More than half the members of the U.S. House — 234 lawmakers — have signed on as co-sponsors of his bill.

The Newport News Democrat's legislation would spend $2 billion over five years to underwrite what he calls "evidence-based prevention programs" to reach high-risk youths before they turn to gangs and crime.

But U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, who had signed on as a co-sponsor, is now raising a red flag, saying the bill won't work.  The Chesapeake Republican, who has tried for years to get a tougher anti-gang sentencing bill passed, said he became a co-sponsor in June in the hopes of getting his proposals included in Scott's bill.

Scott, however, said calls for tougher sentencing do not address the continuing cycle of gang crime. "You can say things as often as you want.  The research is absolutely clear....  Mandatory minimums are a waste of taxpayer money," said Scott, who contends that the public wants the attention shifted to prevention.  "They're sick and tired of watching people shout simple-minded slogans and pass it off as crime policy."

Scott's Youth PROMISE Act — an acronym for "Prison Reduction through Opportunity, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education" — involves steering federal grants to local agencies or groups that can demonstrate they use proven methods to prevent young people from joining gangs or turning to crime.  The legislation also would provide millions to local police for victim- and witness-assistance programs in neighborhoods or cities with gang problems.

Scott said that despite considerable research and examples of successful community prevention programs, government funding mostly has focused on capturing criminals.  If young people can be steered away from crime, the financial savings to policing and the justice system will more than pay for the prevention programs, he said....

Forbes said he doesn't oppose crime prevention programs but doubts that the Youth PROMISE Act will weed out wasteful and ineffective spending.  "I guarantee you that with Bobby's bill, every group in America is going to say it's a prevention program," Forbes said.  "You're going to have hundreds of groups line up... because for most of those groups, this is about dollars."...

Earlier this month, the bill was approved, 17-14, by the House Judiciary Committee, with Forbes joining other Republican committee members to vote against it.  The vote came after the committee rejected Forbes' attempt to add his gang-sentencing plan to the legislation.

Forbes has argued that tougher sentencing laws are needed for gang members — including the younger members.  He proposed a so-called "gangbusters" bill that would make gang-related crimes of murder, violent assaults and kidnapping all federal crimes that could require sentences up to life in prison or, for murder, execution.

Forbes' bill would allow the prosecution of 16- and 17-year-old gang members as adults in federal court.  The measure passed the House in 2005 but failed in the Senate.  He has reintroduced it since then, but it has not progressed to another floor vote.

Tackling prevention by itself would bring nothing but frustration, Forbes said, whereas requiring harsh sentences for younger gang members would force them to turn on their older leaders, undermining the criminal operation.  "If you do not go after 16-, 17-year-old kids, what happens is the gang network will continue to let them do the dirty work," Forbes said.  "We're talking about hardened criminals who are killing people for no reasons at all.  I'm not saying we don't need prevention money.  What I'm saying is what this will do is miss the meanest of the mean and the toughest of the tough.... It will also put all our resources in one direction."

December 27, 2009 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack