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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

WHY ABOLISHING THE DEATH PENALTY MAKES GOOD FISCAL SENSE

I’ll admit it: once upon a time, I was a death penalty advocate. “Kill ‘em all and let THEIR version of God sort them out” was a mantra that I embraced because I couldn’t see the sense of keeping what were obviously the dregs of society with no redeeming social value alive. I mean, they got a fair trial, right? They were convicted by a jury of their peers, right? So why bother to keep them alive, sometimes for decades after they’d been rightfully convicted, right?


Two words changed my mind about this Old Testament covenant: Clarence Brandley. Here’s a link to his Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarence_Brandley. This one case is what changed my mind about capital punishment, all those years ago.

You can’t give the executed person back his or her life after they’ve been put to death if and when it’s determined that said person was wrongly convicted. I wrote a column about capital punishment in September of 2011 (http://cherose-thethornbush.blogspot.com/2011/09/murder-is-murder-is-murder-isnt-it.html) after a death penalty case in California. I wrote an even earlier column about the murder of Jessica Lunsford (http://cherose-thethornbush.blogspot.com/2013/05/murder-is-murder-is-murder-isnt-it-redux.html).


What brought this to my mind yet again are the legal shenanigans surrounding the Jodie Arias case. It’s a death penalty case that’s already cost the taxpayers of Arizona over $1,000,000.00 just in her defense fees alone. It is going to ultimately cost the state of Arizona over $4,000,000.00 altogether in both defense and prosecution costs. That doesn’t even begin to address what it’s going to cost the state of Arizona to pursue the death penalty to its conclusion in this case, presuming that the new punishment phase jury votes unanimously to assess it.

So, let’s break down the cost of putting a person to death versus putting that same person in prison for the rest of their natural lifespan.

"Using conservative rough projections, the Commission estimates the annual costs of the present system ($137 million per year), the present system after implementation of the reforms ... ($232.7 million per year) ... and a system which imposes a maximum penalty of lifetime incarceration instead of the death penalty ($11.5 million)."
--California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, July 1, 2008

There’s a big difference in cost there, wouldn’t you agree? And that’s just for calendar year 2008.

On March 3, 2013, UP WITH CHRIS HAYES on MSNBC discussed how economic concerns are shifting more attention to the high costs of capital punishment. Guest Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, described how the millions of dollars spent on the death penalty could be used elsewhere: “Maryland’s [death penalty repeal] bill actually will give money and resources to the families of people who’ve lost loved ones. California’s bill was actually directly aimed at helping to solve the 34% of homicides that aren’t resolved in an arrest, 46% of rapes that aren’t resolved in an arrest, mostly in poor and minority communities. I think if you’re concerned about public safety, these economic arguments actually make links that we have to make.” Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley was quoted, urging state legislators to the repeal the death penalty, saying, “The death penalty is expensive and it does not work and we should stop doing it. In Maryland, the cost of prosecuting a death row case can be as much as three times what it costs for a case seeking a life sentence without parole." Or, in other words, at least $5,000,000.00 over the course of the appeals process. A 2010 fiscal report by the Legislative Services Agency of Indiana found that the average cost of a death penalty trial was around $450,000. Some cases have cost more than $1 million. In contrast, the same study found that the average trial and cost of appeal of a life-without-parole case was one-tenth as much, $42,658. "As soon as they file that notice that they're seeking death, that defendant is going to get 2 lawyers paid at taxpayer expense at over $100 per hour. They're going to get unlimited experts. If there is a jury, it's going to have to be sequestered. There's going to be all sorts of added costs to that”, Professor Joel Schuum of the McKinney School of Law in Indiana (who was the chair for the discussion) noted.

Criminal Justice Professor James Acker of the University at Albany recently discussed the decision by the District Attorney to seek the death penalty against James Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 people and wounding many others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. In addition to concerns about the defendant's possible mental illness, Acker raised a number of questions about this course of action: "Will the victims and their families somehow be made whole? Would the time and money devoted to achieving this man's death not be better spent on services and law enforcement initiatives meant to repair and prevent the mindless devastation of criminal homicide? Would this man's execution serve an ineffable impulse for justice?" In his op-ed for CNN, Acker also examined the reasons for the dramatic decline in the use of the death penalty in the U.S.: "a revulsion against the awful prospect of executing an innocent person; the racial and social class inequities imbued in the death penalty's administration; the enormous financial burden placed on state and local budgets in supporting capital prosecutions; the availability of life imprisonment without parole to keep the streets safe." He concluded by asking, "[W]hat good would be accomplished through this ritual act--[and would] the lives of the individual victims and Coloradoans generally [] be made better, and justice served by his lethal injection?" You can link to a lot more information and opinions here: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/costs-death-penalty.

Basically, the cost of legally murdering just one person is obscene. Leaving aside the question of the morality of the state committing an act of murder to satisfy a statute, what good does it do? Well, it sure as hell deters the person that’s put to death, doesn’t it? I mean, that person is NEVER going to commit another act of any sort, right? Why can’t we just do away with the death penalty and take that money, and do something useful with it – like rehabilitation for the convicts? Better food, better housing, higher pay for the guards – SOMETHING besides using it to kill people.

Quite aside from that, gangers: I cannot think of a worse punishment than to be shut up in a little concrete box. To live alone (in segregation, where I’m reasonably sure Ms. Arias is going wind up) with sunshine and fresh air rationed on a weekly basis, with showers rationed on a bi-weekly basis, with every aspect of your life regulated and scrutinized. No privacy. Very little contact with the outside world. Rotting in the stink of your own reflections, for the rest of your life.

I can’t think of a worse punishment than that.

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