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July 28, 2011

Noting high cost, and little use, of Pennsylvania's death penalty

The (Allentown) Morning Call has this lengthy piece on the use of capital punishment in the Keystone State. The article is headlined "Pa. death penalty rarely used, but costly," and here is how it begins:

It has been 12 years since Pennsylvania executed a convicted killer, but in that time, death row has still cost taxpayers more than $27 million.

Every year, the state Department of Corrections spends an estimated $10,000 more for each inmate on the country's fourth largest death row compared to other prisoners. That's despite a de facto halt on capital punishment in Pennsylvania for all but prisoners who voluntarily go to their executions. The last person put to death against his will was in 1962, half a century ago.

The most recent to be executed, in 1999, was Philadelphia torture-murderer Gary Heidnik — and only because he bowed to it by waiving his appeals. Since then, the state has housed on average 227 inmates a year facing death sentences, for an additional cost of $27.24 million, or $2.27 million annually. And this when executions have ceased.

The numbers, provided after a request by The Morning Call, offer a peek into the expense of a system in which a death row prisoner is far more likely to die of old age or illness than by lethal injection. They represent the added security costs involved with isolating the inmates in prison. But they are just a fraction of capital punishment's total cost for taxpayers, given the staggering legal bills also tied to putting someone to death.

The accounting comes as unsteady finances have rocked Pennsylvania and local governments, causing layoffs and cuts to services that have affected everything from safety-net programs for the poor to public schools and higher education. The Department of Corrections' budget, at $1.86 billion, remained flat this year.

The death penalty hasn't been part of the budget debate, though some lawmakers say it should be looked at considering the lack of executions. Other states have reconsidered capital punishment in part over its expense, including New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois, which have repealed the death penalty in the past four years.

For death-penalty opponents, the price tag underscores how much society spends in the unreasonable expectation of exacting the ultimate punishment. For supporters, it shows how a runaway appeal process has kept murderers from their deserved fates, thwarting the will of juries and state lawmakers.

July 28, 2011 at 08:05 AM | Permalink

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