NEW VOICES: L.A. Police Chief Says Life Without Parole is Preferable Sentence

Los Angeles Chief of Police William Bratton recently defended San Francisco Distrist Attorney Kamala Harris for not seeking the death penalty against a suspect in a police killing.  "It's much cheaper to sentence them to life in prison and throw away the key," said Bratton, who is endorsing Harris in seeking election as California's Attorney General.

(Matier & Ross, "In S.F., Obama 'just not a party guy' like Clinton," San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 18, 2009, at C2).

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STUDIES: Death Penalty Costs North Carolina Nearly $11 Million a Year

A recent study published by a Duke University economist revealed North Carolina could save $11 million annually if it dropped the death penalty. Philip J. Cook, a professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, calculated the extra state costs of the death penalty during fiscal years 2005 and 2006.  He calculated over $21 million worth of expenses that would have been saved if the death penalty had been repealed. The total included extra defense costs for capital cases in the trial phase, extra payments to jurors, post-conviction costs, resentencing hearings, and the extra costs to the prison system. This conservative estimate did not include resources that would have been freed up in the Office of the Appellate Defender and the North Carolina Supreme Court, the extra time spent by prosecutors in capital cases, and the costs to taxpayers for federal appeals.  Cook concluded that costs are not the only concern, but relevant to the discussion of whether the death penalty should be retained, "The bottom line is that the death penalty is a financial burden on the state and a resource-absorbing burden on the trial courts. That conclusion is relevant to the debate over whether preserving the death penalty is in the public interest…." He also commented, "It's not an ideal use of resources to have so much time devoted to such a small number of cases if your goal is to reduce crime rates."

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COSTS: Death Penalty Costs in Texas Outweigh Life Imprisonment

County estimates in Texas indicate that the death penalty system is much more expensive than sentencing inmates to life imprisonment. Gray County spent nearly $1 million seeking the death penalty against Levi King, even though he pleaded guilty to murder.  Moreover, these costs do not include the cost of appeals, which will further increase the cost of the capital case, nor the costs of cases in which the death penalty is sought but not given.  By comparison, a non-death penalty murder case in nearby Lubbock County typically costs  about $3,000, court officials estimate.  The average cost to house an inmate in Texas prisons is $47.50 per day, according to Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.  Thus it would cost about $17,340 to house an inmate for a year and $693,500 for 40 years, far less than even part of the death penalty costs.  The regional public defender's office estimates that just the legal costs for a death penalty case from indictment to execution are $1.2 million.  Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney Matt Powell said, “I don’t dispute that it’s more expensive,” but said he never takes cost into account when deciding whether to seek the death penalty.

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DPIC's 2009 Year End Report Released

The Death Penalty Information Center released the “The Death Penalty in 2009: Year End Report” on December 18, noting that the country is expected to finish 2009 with the fewest death sentences since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Eleven states considered abolishing the death penalty this year, a significant increase in legislative activity from previous years, as the high costs and lack of measurable benefits associated with this punishment troubled lawmakers.

“The annual number of death sentences in the U.S. has dropped for seven straight years and is 60% less than in the 1990s,” said Richard Dieter, the report’s author and DPIC’s executive director. “In the last two years, three states have abolished capital punishment and a growing number of states are asking whether it's worth keeping.  This entire decade has been marked by a declining use of the death penalty."  There were 106 death sentences in 2009 compared with a high of 328 in 1994.

New Mexico became the 15th state to abolish the death penalty, and 9 men who were sentenced to death were exonerated in 2009, the second highest number of exonerations since the death penalty was reinstated.  The total number of exonerations since 1973 has now reached 139.

(Read “The Death Penalty in 2009: Year End Report” here, Dec. 18, 2009.  DPIC's press release may be read here.  See also previous DPIC Reports.

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EDITORIALS: Is An Execution Worth the Price?

A recent editorial in the Virginian-Pilot called for eliminating the death penalty as a good way to address the $3.5 billion gap in the state's budget.  "Doing away with the option of a death sentence makes sense on several levels," the editors wrote.  "It would save the state from having to pay fees associated with lengthy trials and years of appeals. It would end the agony of repeated court hearings for the families of victims. It would eliminate the four perpetually understaffed capital defender's offices, whose attorneys handle appeals automatically generated when people are sentenced to death row."  The paper suggests that the $2 million spent per execution could be better put toward education, public safety and crime prevention efforts.  "Is the cost of an execution really worth it when, for less than half the price, we could put a killer in a prison cell, locked away from society for life?"  Read the full editorial below.

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COSTS: Indiana Death Penalty Cases Can Cost $1 Million

A single death penalty case in Indiana can cost taxpayers as much as $1 million. In Marion County, the costs of preparation for three potential death penalty trials have reached $659,000 this year alone, according to the Public Defender Agency. A high-profile death penalty case in the same county has cost nearly $850,000 and not all the bills are in. Pursuing a life sentence costs less than the death penalty, even considering the expense of a convict's longer incarceration, according to Indiana studies. Representation is more expensive for death penalty defendants because each must have two qualified attorneys. "Every dollar we spend attempting to do this, that's money we could have spent elsewhere," said Chief Public Defender Robert Hill. "(But) we have a constitutional mandate to defend our clients." Since 2000, Hill's agency reports, defense bills in Marion County death penalty cases have totaled $3.9 million. Statewide, costs to taxpayers for the defense in trials and appeals have been nearly $20 million since 1990, according to the Indiana Public Defender Commission.

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New Hampshire Commission Studies Cost of the Death Penalty

On December 4, the New Hampshire Commission to Study the Death Penalty held a hearing in Concord to examine the cost of the death penaty in the state. The twenty-two member Commission, led by retired Judge Walter Murphy, has been charged with considering several issues, including whether the death penalty is a deterrent, if it is arbitrarily applied, and if it covers the appropriate crimes.  The Commission is considering alternatives to capital punishment and the related question of whether the state spends more on a death penalty case than on a first-degree homicide case resulting in a life sentence.  The state spent more than $5.3 million on two capital cases last year, and has not had an execution since 1939.  Deputy Attorney General Orville Fitch told the committee that his office spent $1.6 million while prosecuting Michael Addison, who was ultimately sentenced to death. The state spent an additional $1.2 million for the public defender who represented Addison, a large sum when compared to the $70,000-$100,000 it costs to defend a typical first-degree case. Fitch also testified that his office spent $2.4 million prosecuting another defendant in a murder-for-hire case, in which a life sentence was returned.

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NEW VOICES: Washington State Law Enforcement Officials Express Doubts About Death Penalty

Walla Walla County (Washington) Sheriff Mike Humphreys said the death penalty does not deter homicides, and it may be time for the public to reconsider the law: "At the time, (perpetrators do not) think about [the death penalty]. They don't believe they're going to get caught. And if they do get caught, there are a lot of court proceedings making it likely (execution is) not going to happen. . . . It's costing us this much money. Let the people make that decision," he said. Humphreys agreed with a recent (Death Penalty Information Center) survey of police chiefs who rated reducing drug abuse as a better way of reducing crime. "If we're going to reduce the drug abuse, we're going to reduce all crimes. From theft to murder," he said.  Police Chief Chuck Fulton agreed with Humphreys that the death penalty is not a deterrent and would prefer to see the practice abolished through legislation. Fulton said the death penalty creates more victims and the system results in a "'carnival atmosphere' that adversely affects penitentiary workers, law enforcement officers responsible for maintaining security, and every one else involved." He said he understands the anger toward those who commit murder but doubts that the death penalty is the answer for society.

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DPIC's Report on Costs and Police Views Subject of Bob Edwards Interview

The Bob Edwards on Sirius XM Radio recently explored the high costs of the death penalty and the views of the country's police chiefs as discussed in DPIC's latest report, "Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis."  Edwards is the former host of National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."  He interviewed DPIC's Executive Director Richard Dieter on October 20.  An excerpt of the conversation focusing on the national poll of police chiefs and their opinions about the failure of the death penalty as a crime fighting tool is available here.
(The full interview is available from the Bob Edwards Show, Oct. 20, 2009).  See Costs and Multimedia.

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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."

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