NEW VOICES: Former Kentucky Officials Rethinking the Wisdom of High Death Penalty Expenditures

The former director of Kentucky's courts recently recommended that the state stop wasting money on the death penalty and direct those resources where they are needed more.  "We've got a system in Kentucky where there's not enough money for public advocates, for prosecutors, for drug courts, family courts, for juvenile services, for rehabilitation programs, and we're using the money we have in a way I think is unwise," said Jason Nemes, former director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts. "Every dollar that goes to our ineffective capital punishment system is a dollar taken away from other needs. . . The benefit to public safety is low. Are we really protecting the public?" he asked.

In over 30 years, Kentucky has carried out three executions. The state spends about $8 million a year prosecuting, defending and incarcerating death row inmates, according to an estimate by the state Department of Public Advocacy. Critics of the death penalty question whether this ineffective system is one the state can afford, especially as state-ordered budget cuts are already affecting many aspects of its judicial branch. Former Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Lambert agreed that death-penalty cases often become "legal monsters," and that "it's impossible to streamline death-penalty litigation to justify the cost, because doing so would dramatically increase the risk of wrongful executions."

Warren Commonwealth's Attorney Chris Cohron, who also is president of the Kentucky Commonwealth's Attorneys Association, acknowledged that when he prosecutes a death-penalty case, he knows it will most likely be with him for the rest of his career, perhaps 15 years or more. "It'll be a race to see if we can get the sentence imposed or whether the defendant dies a natural death," he said. "It's very, very frustrating."

(R. Dunlop, "Kentucky's troubled death-penalty system lets cases languish for decades," Louisville Courier-Journal, November 8, 2009).  The article makes reference to DPIC's report, Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis.  See also Costs and New Voices.