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March 27, 2010

"Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes"

The title of this post is the provocative first sentence of this effective FoxNews article, which is headlined "Just or Not, Cost of Death Penalty Is a Killer for State Budgets." A subheading of the piece also coins the phrase "death row boondoggles," which I may start using a lot. Here is the subheading and also other excerpts from the piece:

Capital murder trials and death row boondoggles are wreaking havoc on budgets across the country as many states are now rethinking the death penalty, which is enormously costly and rarely imposed even after successful prosecutions....

Forget justice, morality, the possibility of killing an innocent man or any of the traditional arguments that have been part of the public debate over the death penalty. The new one is this: The cost of killing killers is killing us.

"There have been studies of costs of the death penalty before, but we have never seen the same reaction that we are seeing now," says Richard C. Dieter of the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center. "Perhaps it is because governments are looking for ways to cut costs, and this is easier than school closings or layoffs, but it sure has hit a nerve."

In the last year, four states — Kansas, Colorado, Montana and Connecticut — have wrestled with the emotional and politically charged issue. In each state there was a major shift toward rejection of the death penalty and narrow defeats for legislation that would have abolished it. In Connecticut, both houses actually voted in favor of a bill that would have banned executions, but the governor vetoed it.

Unlike past debates over executions, the current battles are fueled largely by the costs the death penalty imposes on states. The numbers, according to the studies, are staggering....

A Florida study found the state could cut its costs by $51 million simply by eliminating the death penalty. But no state matches the dilemma of California, where almost 700 inmates are sitting on death row and, according to Natasha Minsker, author of a new report by the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, few will ever actually be put to death. In fact, she says, the odds against being executed are so great, murder suspects in California actually seek the death penalty because it is the only way to get a single room in the state's prison system.

"Only 1 percent of people sentenced to death in California in the last 30 years have been executed," Minsker said. "The death penalty in California is purely a symbolic sentence." Her study found that the cash-strapped state could immediately save $1 billion by eliminating the death penalty and imposing sentences of life without parole. The alternative, if the cash-strapped state keeps the death penalty: spend $400 million to build a new death-row prison to house the growing number of prisoners.

Minsker said just keeping prisoners on death row costs $90,000 more per prisoner per year than regular confinement, because the inmates are housed in single rooms and the prisons are staffed with extra guards. That money alone would cut $63 million from the state budget. But other savings would ripple through every step of the criminal justice system as well, from court costs to subsidized spending for defense attorney and investigation expenses.

March 27, 2010 at 02:00 PM | Permalink


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"Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes."

Every time a killer has his way, a human being ceases to exist.

Go put a price on that.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 27, 2010 11:07:04 PM

Every time an inmate is killed, a human being ceases to exist...and a school closes.

Posted by: John K | Mar 30, 2010 8:48:18 AM

Every time a school closes, more killers are created.

Posted by: Talitha | Mar 30, 2010 11:30:04 AM

John K --

I was too hasty. I should have said, "Every time a killer has his way, an INNOCENT human being ceases to exist."

Again, if you care to put a price on that, I'd love to see your calculations.

P.S. The factual premise here -- that every time a death sentence is imposed, a school closes -- is simply false. See my entry on Crime and Consequences, http://www.crimeandconsequences.com/crimblog/2010/03/is-the-death-penalty-killing-e.html

P.P.S. As everyone knows, this cost argument, even if factually correct, which it is not, is a make-weight. An issue with moral consequences this weighty is not a matter of finance.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 30, 2010 12:26:59 PM

Talitha --

"Every time a school closes, more killers are created."

If you have any data or argument tending to show that what you say is true, there's no rule against disclosing it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 30, 2010 3:25:37 PM

Depriving humans of liberty is a weighty matter, too. Yet states didn't get serious about releasing prisoners early until they ran out of money.

With the DP, money is the practical thing we have to talk about after rejecting each other's lofty arguments.

Posted by: John K | Mar 30, 2010 5:16:13 PM

John K --

The reason government budgets are in trouble is runaway social, and particularly entitlement, spending. If you want to save money, you have to go to where the money is. All this hand-wringing about the costs of the DP, while saying not a word about what is actually the drain of state budgets, shows -- again -- that the current crusade is just a new throw-in to support a pre-existing position. It is also a repeat of the abolitionist ploy to get rid of the death penalty without having gone to the trouble of reversing the longstanding public consensus that it is a just punishment.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 30, 2010 6:07:59 PM

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