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November 15, 2012

"Utah’s death penalty costs $1.6M more per inmate"

The title of this post is the headline of this new piece from the Salt Lake Tribune.  Here are excerpts:

Craig Watson said he didn’t know if "closure" was the proper word. But as he witnessed the 2010 execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner, who killed Watson’s cousin Melvyn J. Otterstrom at a bar in 1984, a feeling of peace came over him: It was, finally, over.

As Utah lawmakers weigh the cost of executing men like Gardner versus keeping them in prison for life, Watson asked them on Wednesday to remember there are some things that no amount of money can touch — a message also shared by Barbara Noriega, whose mother and sister were killed by another man now on Utah’s death row.  "With the death sentence, there are no recurring offenders and we can go on with our lives," Watson said, his voice breaking at times as he addressed the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.

Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, asked for the analysis, the first study to examine what the capital punishment option costs the state and local governments.  Handy has not proposed any legislation and said Wednesday he is "under no illusion that people in Utah want to change the present law."  But Handy said the comparative costs of life without parole and the death penalty — which a legislative fiscal analyst pegged "unofficially" at an added $1.6 million per inmate from trial to execution — should be understood....

It is a topic of discussion in other states as well. New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois and Connecticut all did away with the option in recent years.  A year ago, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber put a moratorium on executions and ordered a review of that state’s capital punishment law.  On Nov. 6, voters in California, where more than 700 inmates sit on death row, rejected a proposition that would have repealed the state’s death penalty; proponents argued for doing away with the option based on its costs.

Lawmakers may get some insight into Utahns’ views of capital punishment from a survey being conducted by students at Utah Valley University under the direction of Sandy McGunigall-Smith, an associate professor of legal studies. The survey will be sent to 6,000 people randomly selected in Ogden, West Valley City, Kamas, Saratoga Springs, Alpine and Taylorsville....

Ralph Dellapiana, a defense attorney and death penalty project director for Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the cost estimates fall short of capturing the full expense of the dozen or so aggravated murder cases filed each year in which the death penalty is an option.  Such cases require thousands of hours of extensive, multi-generational social histories of the offender, for example, costs that would not be incurred if the penalty were replaced with a life without parole alternative.  The cost analysis also doesn’t include expenses incurred in cases that are prosecuted as capital offenses but that end up in plea deals or acquittals, as occurred recently with Curtis Allgier, who shot and killed corrections officer Stephen Anderson during a 2007 escape attempt.

November 15, 2012 at 10:04 AM | Permalink


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That DP opponents, who lost in liberal California last week by a several hundred thousand votes, think they can win in Utah, of all places, with the IDENTICAL cost-based argument, is further proof of my point that pot is de facto, legal -- and, obviously, a few people in Utah are smoking it.

As Californians realized, central life-and-death issues in criminal punishment cannot properly be decided on the basis of money. This is something liberals used to understand.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 15, 2012 11:33:43 AM

If the value of a life is $6 million, the cost of even this death penalty is worth it if only 1 in 6 defendant will kill in prison. There are several times more prison murders than executions, so the cost is a bargain.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 15, 2012 11:55:25 AM


learn new words every day.

Cost is down there as to arguments against the death penalty, particularly since if $$$ is all we cared about, stripping defense funds would do the trick too, especially since lots of the money overall isn't spent on death penalty cases.

The family of murder victims against the death penalty also would testify money isn't what they care about, probably. But, along the margins, this sort of thing is put out there as a sort of neutral concern.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 15, 2012 12:30:33 PM

Even a lot of liberals such as yours truly understand that individuals simply need to be put to death who sneak into slumber parties, kidnap one of the participants and rape and murder her. How can anyone genuinely think that such people deserve to go on living? Hey, I'm in favor of legalizing pot, national health care, gay marriage, teaching evolution, and so forth. However, heinous murderers need to be executed not only to protect the public but also because such killers just don't deserve to live. Clearly, California's liberal electorate understood that. Now, hopefully, California's governor and AG, in keeping with their pledges, will start doing what is necessary to get executions going again.

Posted by: alpino | Nov 15, 2012 6:20:29 PM

"How can anyone genuinely think that such people deserve to go on living?"

Many people, faiths, states and nations do "genuinely" manage to think that, including (recently) Ron Paul. The arguments on both sides are well known.

"In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time." -- Lincoln

Posted by: Joe | Nov 15, 2012 8:39:20 PM

Joe --

FYI, Lincoln approved of and used the death penalty. In 1862, he authorized the hanging of 39 Sioux Indians convicted of murdering numerous white settlers in Mankato, Minnesota. This mass execution remains the largest of its kind in United States history.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 16, 2012 8:57:27 AM

“As regards capital cases, the trouble is that emotional men and women
always see only the individual whose fate is up at the moment, and neither his victim
nor the many millions of unknown individuals who would in the long run be harmed by what they ask.

Moreover, almost any criminal, however brutal, has usually some person,
often a person whom he has greatly wronged, who will plead for him. If the mother is
alive she will always come ...making a plea for a criminal so wicked, so utterly brutal and depraved,
that it would have been a crime on my part to remit his punishment.”~~T. Roosevelt, An Autobiography

Posted by: Adamakis | Nov 16, 2012 12:10:14 PM

I object to my tax dollars being used to finance absurd, unreasonably expensive, and irrationally imposed death sentences.

Posted by: Taxpayer | Nov 16, 2012 1:56:55 PM

"Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History" by John Fabian Witt covered the ground Bill Otis referenced. Like Jack Goldsmith, I recommend it. :)

I also purchased but have yet read Mark Osler's (recently cited) book viewing the death penalty in the context of Jesus's execution. I did read the introduction and he references "my friend" Doug Berman, including his concern too much emphasis is given to the death penalty given numbers-wise so many criminal matters are non-death penalty related.

It looks like a good book & a taste of his writing can be found on SSRN. Osler is a former federal prosecutor but might not agree with Bill Otis on various matters.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 17, 2012 10:58:40 AM

[edit: Mark Osler's book was not cited; an op-ed he wrote on the recent trends in marijuana legalization was among those linked in a recent post]

Posted by: Joe | Nov 17, 2012 10:59:53 AM

Joe --

All the arguments against the DP -- that it's immoral, inhuman, too costly, too freakishly imposed, and might be used against an innocent person -- apply in wartime as well as peacetime. Indeed, with the urge to give the state more power during a war, the dangers I noted are enhanced.

Nonetheless, Lincoln approved of and used the DP. Do you dispute that? And do you dispute that Lincoln was a man of great moral vision?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 21, 2012 9:46:48 AM

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