STUDIES: Illinois Commission Questions Use of Millions for Death Penalty Prosecutions

The Illinois Capital Reform Study Committee, created by the state legislature in 2003 and headed by Thomas P. Sullivan, a former U.S. Attorney, recently issued its sixth and final report on the Illinois death penalty.  The report found that taxpayers are spending tens of millions of dollars on the prosecution of a large number of death-penalty cases, even though relatively few result in actual death sentences.  Since 2003, 18 people have been sentenced to death, even though 500 defendants had capital charges brought against them. The report found that prosecutors seek the penalty as a bargaining ploy in pursuit of a lesser guilty plea and sentence.  Leigh B. Bienen, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University School of Law and a member of the study committee designed to help fix the state's system of capital punishment said, “It doesn’t look too fixed to me.”  Since 2000, she learned, $100 million in taxpayer money has been spent via the Capital Litigation Trust Fund. The money was meant to ensure defense counsel in capital cases, especially in places where public defender offices were inadequate for the task.  But the fund is also used by prosecutors to pay for their considerable nonsalary expenses, including those for investigators,

Counties get a virtually bankrupt state to pick up the tab and “to maintain a very expensive and dysfunctional system of capital punishment,” Mrs. Bienen wrote.  Scott Turow, the lawyer and author, who is a former member of the state's Commission on Capital Punishment, said, “I used to think that cost arguments were not worthwhile, because you can’t get to them without resolving the issue of whether the death penalty is actually deterrence.  But assuming it’s not a deterrent, ­ which the data suggest, ­ it’s worth asking how much we’re willing to pay just to appease a sense of public vengeance.”

In addition, $64 million has been spent on civil damage awards to men whose death row convictions were reversed.  Illinois has had a moratorium on all executions since 2000.  The legislature may consider a bill to abolish capital punishment in its current session.

(J. Warren, "Expose Hits Hard at Death Penalty System," Chicago News Cooperative, reported in the N.Y. Times, November 13, 2010).  See Costs and Studies.