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January 21, 2010

Nebraska legislature rejects proposal to assess costs of the death penalty

This interesting story from Nebraska, which is headlined "How expensive is the death penalty?", confirms my fear that at least some proponents of the death penalty are afraid to take a serious and somber look at whether capital punishment makes economic sense.  Here are the details:

State lawmakers easily defeated a proposal Wednesday that would have provided an answer to a much-debated question: How much does it cost Nebraska to have a death penalty?

On a 30-15 vote, state senators shot down a proposal by Omaha Sen. Brenda Council to have the State Auditor’s Office study how much money is spent prosecuting and appealing death penalty cases, as well as the potential savings of repealing capital punishment. 

Council said Nebraska has never arrived at an accurate accounting of its death penalty costs. In neighboring Kansas, death penalty prosecutions were found to cost 16 times as much as cases resulting in sentences of life imprisonment. “The public needs to know,” Council said, particularly when the state is short of money for effective crime-fighting tools.

Opponents criticized the study idea, saying that it should have been introduced as a separate bill rather than as a last-minute amendment and that a study wouldn’t change minds in the Legislature, which, by all measures, remains staunchly pro-death penalty. “It just plain won’t matter,” said Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, a capital punishment supporter....

Senators began debating Council’s proposal to repeal the death penalty, Legislative Bill 306, on Wednesday morning — and debate will resume on that bill this morning.  But with little chance of passing a repeal measure, Council offered the study proposal as an alternative, saying it would show Nebraskans the monetary costs of the death penalty....

Norfolk Sen. Mike Flood, a death penalty supporter, said there’s no doubt that death penalty cases cost more. “They should, because the state is taking someone’s life,” he said.  But the extra expense is worth it, Flood and others said, because some murders are so heinous that the ultimate punishment is warranted....

Grand Island Sen. Mike Gloor said if the death penalty has prevented even one murder, it is worth the execution of 10 guilty men.  “The death penalty has never been about dollars for me,” Gloor said.

Council argued that the death penalty has been applied unfairly, carries the risk of executing innocent people and is an ineffective deterrent to crime. She cited a 2009 “Smart on Crime” survey of 500 police chiefs across the country, in which capital punishment was rated the least-efficient use of taxpayer funds to fight crime.  

Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln said that there are more effective ways to deter crime and that money should be used for them. The State Patrol, for instance, is at its lowest staffing level since 1985-86, Conrad said, and its crime lab has lost employees because the state can’t pay competitive wages. 

Council said that in Omaha last year, the number of homicides fell to 29 from 44 in 2008.  The main reason wasn’t the death penalty, she said, but stronger community-based efforts to head off retaliatory killings. Council said other state senators have approached her about introducing a bill that calls for a study of the costs of the death penalty.

Especially at a time of tight state budgets and persistent concerns about government spending and tax rates, I have a hard time imagining that legislators in Nebraska or other places would vocally assert that how much some other particular government program costs is not worth examining and "just plain won’t matter" in an assessment of the program's worth and sustainability. 

Yet, as is often the case, government spending on crime and justice issues --- and especially with respect to the death penalty --- seem to immune from the common concerns and usual complaints about bloated and inefficient government spending failing to provide citizens value for their tax dollar.

Some recent related posts on the costs of capital punsihment:

January 21, 2010 at 12:29 PM | Permalink

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Comments

I'm all for undertaking studies of the costs of the death penalty -- as long as they are accompanied by equally serious studies of the costs of capital murder.

Question: Why is it that we hear so much about the costs of the death penalty, but so little about the costs that are REALLY driving governments over the financial edge, to wit, gargantuan social spending?

Answer: Because those who control the bullhorn dislike the death penalty, but are in love with the welfare state.

Imagine that!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 21, 2010 1:51:58 PM

Nebraska's battle to require a cost study of the use of the death penalty isn't over yet. Today, four senators filed LB 1105, a bill which would require the Nebraska State Auditor to assess the costs in using the death penalty. This bill will be set for hearing sometime this legislative session before the Judiciary Committee.

Posted by: Jeremy Murphy | Jan 21, 2010 2:04:59 PM

The article doesn't say how the study committee was to be structured. In California, we had a commission that was stacked with and run by opponents that simply served up a predictable regurgitation of the anti-side's positions that we had heard before. The only serious attempt to actually study costs was a preliminary look by RAND, which concluded it couldn't be done with the budget they had. So they plucked double-hearsay numbers out of newspaper articles and published them as official commission findings.

Supporters aren't interested in a serious look? Commission after commission ends up being a circus look. We are not interested in any more of those.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jan 21, 2010 3:40:19 PM

Bill, Considering that you proudly proclaimed that you worked for the welfare state, I don’t really understand how you can argue that it is somehow bad. I suspect that your employment probably cost taxpayers about $150,000 per year. I don’t know if that can be justified or not, but I am sure that you wrote some kick-ass memos, and forwarded some really funny emails.

What is disturbing about the article is that the legislature don’t seem to get that the overriding purpose of the study is to provide the electorate with information upon which to base their decisions about who to vote for.

And, to answer Kent’s objection: Yes. I do want to see a study of the costs of capital murder. I suspect that we will find that since many of the victims lacked graduate-level educations their contributions to society were minimal or non-existent (popping out babies doesn’t count). But we definitely should investigate this as well. I don’t even think that this will be too hard.

Now, it gets a bit complicated when the “victims” of crime cost society as well. Some people are really a burden on society as they simply take taxpayer money. But, we can assess this as well.

Posted by: s.cotus | Jan 21, 2010 5:19:11 PM

s.cotus --

"Bill, Considering that you proudly proclaimed that you worked for the welfare state, I don’t really understand how you can argue that it is somehow bad."

Actually I worked for the Justice Department, which long pre-existed the welfare state. You missed that?

If you think all this social spending is so wonderful, fine. You pay for it, leave me out.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 21, 2010 7:08:10 PM

Bill, I'm four-square behind you on the death penalty and harsh punishment of violent crime. However, I must part ways with you on your disdain for social spending. I'd rather not live in the laissez-faire societies that make up most of the Third World, where one has the much-sought-after freedom to starve. I live in Italy (which, granted, ain't exactly Scandinavia) and I'm happy to pay taxes for things like evil, Bolshevist socialized medicine so that I won't have to go bankrupt just to pay medical bills (by the way, despite what insurance-industry fearmonger hacks would have us believe, there's less medical red tape here, largely due to the lack of health-insurance companies, and you can easily choose and change doctors--mind you, I live in the North, I understand that things are appreciably worse down south).

Posted by: Alpino | Jan 21, 2010 8:42:50 PM

Alpino --

I support a degree of social spending, but it's out of control. It is, as Obama correctly says (but never does anything about) unsustainable. The political temptation is always to spend, since that makes you popular, but never to pay for it, since that makes you unpopular. This has gone on now since the Great Society, and it is going to bankrupt us.

No serious person believes that spending on the criminal justice system is at the heart of the problem. The explosive growth of entitlement spending is, but the only suggestions I see on this site for dealing with it are for eliminating the DP and cutting way back on imprisonment. The truth is that we could end spending on the criminal justice system ALTOGETHER and it wouldn't be a drop in the bucket. So all this talk about the need to do it is disingenuous, and particularly so when not a word is said about the real fiscal problem or its source.

If people really cared about national solvency instead of pretending to care about it, they would address its wellspring rather than have post after post on what is nothing more than a diversion.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 21, 2010 9:02:50 PM

I agree that proposing getting rid of the death penalty as an important cost-cutting measure is disingenuous since it is indeed a relative drop in the bucket as far as total government expenditures are concerned. Undoubtedly, abolitionists grasp at any straw they can in order to eliminate capital punishment. Clearly, an honest approach-- that is, forthrightly advocating the position that it should be abolished because they view it as simply being morally wrong in and of itself-- is just not convincing to the great majority of Americans.

So, DP opponents have very cleverly tried every tack they can think of (e.g. it's cruel and unusual, it costs too much, it's racist, it's geographically discriminatory, there have been too many "exonerations", it's not always given to serial killers, etc.). In fact, I'm actually a bit surprised they have yet to claim it's sexist since it's disproportionately levied against male offenders. In any case, the abolitionists' death-by-a-thousand-cuts method seems to be, unfortunately, making some headway against the death penalty (witness its abolition in New Jersey and New Mexico).

And, by the way, I still love my pinko-commie, death-panel nationalized health care.

Posted by: Alpino | Jan 21, 2010 9:46:27 PM

Alpino --

"I'm actually a bit surprised they have yet to claim it's sexist since it's disproportionately levied against male offenders."

Actually, they HAVE claimed it's sexist. Such a claim in not made often, since it's silly even by abolitionist standards, but I've seen it.

"In any case, the abolitionists' death-by-a-thousand-cuts method seems to be, unfortunately, making some headway against the death penalty (witness its abolition in New Jersey and New Mexico)."

True. On the other hand, there will always be the next Gacy or Bundy or Couey or McVeigh, and that -- i.e., reality -- is what the abolitionists can never quite overcome.

"And, by the way, I still love my pinko-commie, death-panel nationalized health care."

As I always say, there's nothing better than a good pinko-commie. True story: The guy across the hall from me at the law dorm at Stanford was a Marxist. His father had been head of the Job Corps for Lyndon Johnson, and he had been arrested and jailed for participating in a takeover of the Dartmouth administration building. But he was, like you, an honest man, and he wouldn't blink the truth.

Eventually we became good friends. He wound up as best man at my wedding, and is a co-founder and author of the influential conservative blog Powerline,
http://www.powerlineblog.com/.

So I hold out great hope for you!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 21, 2010 10:17:54 PM

The abolitionist generates massive, costly obstructions, then argues, the DP is expensive.

The courts, which are vessels of lawyer rent seeking, will keep the DP alive to maintain the lucrative DP appellate business going at tax payer expense.

The lawyers here are like fish in the sewer of hyper-proceduralist rent seeking. They have no awareness of the water, let alone of the land and of the air above.

A judge allowing any argument to proceed outside of new innocence facts, gets impeached as a thievin' rent seeking land pirate. Failing removal from the bench, direct action groups of murder victim male family members hunt the weasel, find him, and bring street justice. This is justified because the judge is a self-dealing thief and armed robber whenever allowing lawyer rent seeking. To deter.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 22, 2010 5:23:42 AM

There he is with his "rent-seeking" again. 86 this guy!

Posted by: Alpino | Jan 22, 2010 9:13:28 AM

SC does bring the confusing "rent-seeking" thingy here ad nauseum, but "86"ing isn't the answer. As long as he remains harmless here in the internets, real people in real life are probably much safer.

Posted by: Mark # 1 | Jan 22, 2010 3:22:36 PM

Good point!

Posted by: Alpino | Jan 22, 2010 4:39:16 PM

Bill writes:

"No serious person believes that spending on the criminal justice system is at the heart of the problem. The explosive growth of entitlement spending is, but the only suggestions I see on this site for dealing with it are for eliminating the DP and cutting way back on imprisonment."

Maybe that's because this site is entitled "SENTENCING Law and Policy," and not "Reducing the Deficit Law and Policy." Just a thought.

If you want suggestions for dealing with entitlement spending, you may be in the wrong place. It's possible to discuss whether the death penalty or imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders is a rational use of state funds without discussing how to balance the federal budget as a whole.

Posted by: arx | Jan 22, 2010 5:34:10 PM

arx --

When the "fiscal crisis" of government is constantly put forward as the driving force behind the "need" to cut costs in the criminal justice system, a refusal to discuss or even look at the real cause of that crisis -- exploding enttlement spending -- is disingenuous to the point of absurdity.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 23, 2010 1:57:48 PM

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