"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Utah: The high cost of the death penalty: $1.6 million is just the tip of the iceberg

Welcome to Utah
Welcome to Utah
Utah has filed 110 Aggravated Murder cases in the last 11 years, but has achieved only one execution, and only 1 new death sentence in that time.

Republicans are sponsoring a bill in the 2016 legislative session to repeal the death penalty. The purpose of the bill is to eliminate an extremely expensive and grossly ineffective government program.

In 2012 the Utah Legislature's Fiscal Analyst's Office completed a study comparing the cost of a typical Aggravated Murder case in which the death penalty was sought and obtained, with the costs of an Aggravated Murder case in which the death penalty was never sought and a sentence of Life Without Possibility of Parole (LWOP) was obtained. That study determined that the additional cost of just one case ending in execution was about $1.6 million more than 1 LWOP case.

As striking as the $1.6 million number is, it is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cost of the death penalty. Only 10% of an iceberg is visible above the water line. If you are measuring the size of the iceberg you must count the full mass of the iceberg. The same is true of the cost of the death penalty. The full cost of achieving 1 execution, or "cost per execution," must include the costs incurred in all the other death-eligible cases that do not result in execution.

Utah has filed 110 Aggravated Murder cases in the last 11 years, but has achieved only one execution, and only one new death sentence in that time. These other death-eligible cases may not result in execution for several reasons: They may be resolved by plea bargain before trial, or the defendant may not be convicted of Aggravated Murder at trial, or the jury may vote for a sentence other than death. But, the extra expenses begin mounting as soon as counsel is appointed in each potential death penalty case.

For example, in 2015, Washington State found that the additional cost per case to the state for a death penalty case was $1 million. Then, adding in the estimated costs incurred in all the death-eligible cases that did not result in execution, and dividing that total amount by the 5 executions Washington had since 1976, resulted in a cost per execution of about $24 million. That is 24 times the additional costs of one capital case.

Similarly, a 2008 study in Maryland found that the additional cost per case for a case resulting in a death sentence was about $2 million more per case than when the death penalty was not sought. Then, adding in the estimated costs incurred in all of the death-eligible cases that did not result in execution, and dividing that total amount by the 5 executions Maryland had since 1976, resulted in a cost per execution of $37.2 million. That is 18.6 times the additional costs of one capital case.

Utah's statistics are similar to those of Washington and Maryland. Utah has had only 7 executions since 1976. Utah's 2012 cost analysis reasonably estimated that the additional cost per case to prosecute a case to execution is $1.6 million, which is right in the middle of the additional cost per case estimates of Maryland ($2 million) and Washington ($1 million). Now, even if Utah's multiple for death-eligible cases not ending in execution were only half that of Washington and Maryland, say 10, then Utah's estimated cost per execution would be over $16 million per execution.

Moreover, not only is the death penalty shockingly expensive, it is also grossly ineffective. The State very rarely achieves an execution. As noted, Utah has filed 110 Aggravated Murder cases in the last 11 years, but has achieved only 1 execution and 1 new death sentence in that time. Would we accept a Fire Department that only showed up at only 1 of every 110 fires? Would we tolerate a Roads Department that fixed only 1 of every 110 potholes? What is the point of paying for the death penalty system if the prosecutions almost never result in executions?

Another important "cost" of the death penalty is a human one. When the State seeks the death penalty, the families of the murder victims have to wait decades for the cases, including appeals, to come to an end. And, for the vast majority, those cases never do end in an execution. But when the death penalty is not sought, none of the costs or delays associated with a death case are incurred. The families get swift and sure justice. And for the most dangerous murderers, an LWOP sentence ensures that the murderer will never leave prison.

Utah policymakers should apply that same prudent analysis as they did with last year's Justice Reinvestment Initiative, and cut out these wasteful costs by eliminating the death penalty. A sentence of LWOP provides swift and sure justice to the families of victims. And the millions saved by eliminating wasteful death penalty prosecutions could be invested in more productive crime prevention measures, or returned to taxpayers in the form of a tax cut.

Source: Deseret News, Opinion by Ralph Dellapiana, Feb. 16, 2016. Mr. Dellapiana is Director of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.


Lawmaker wants to abolish death penalty in conservative Utah

Utah's House of Representatives
Utah's House of Representatives
A Republican lawmaker wants Utah to join 19 states and the District of Columbia in abolishing the death penalty, but supporters acknowledge that it's a long shot in the conservative state.

Sen. Steve Urquhart of St. George said Wednesday that the delays and costs associated with executions make it an ineffective punishment. His proposal has not yet been unveiled, but he said he is not sure the government should be in the business of killing people.

"We understand that government is not perfect. And that realization to take upon ourselves the godlike power of life and death - that's something we should really think about," he said.

Urquhart knows there is strong support for capital punishment in Utah, but he said its expense and the chance of wrongful convictions might resonate with his libertarian and conservative colleagues.

A panel of state lawmakers debated the issue in October, weighing whether a repeal would be the most moral and cost-effective path. They didn't take action but brought up a 2012 legislative report that estimated each capital punishment case costs taxpayers about $1.7 million more than a life sentence.

The number was based on the assumption that each inmate spends about 20 years on death row appealing their sentence.

The state's last execution was in 2010, and the 9 inmates on death row are all years away from exhausting their appeals.

"In Utah, we almost don't have a death penalty because it happens so infrequently," said Republican Rep. Stephen Handy, who opposes execution.

Handy of Layton called it an important discussion to have but said he doesn't think it will go anywhere this year.

Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said in October that he's a strong supporter of capital punishment but it should only be used for "the most heinous of crimes." Herbert signed a law last year that bolstered the state's execution policy by ordering that a firing squad be used if lethal injection drugs cannot be obtained.

Urquhart acknowledged that he voted in favor of the firing squad bill, saying that because Utah has capital punishment on the books, "firing squad is as quick and effective as any means."

He said his proposal would allow executions to go forward for the nine people on death row now but remove it as an option for any new convictions. He said he doesn't want to interfere with those pending cases out of concern it will cause further pain for the victims' families.

Providing a sense of justice for victims and their families is a reason to keep the death penalty, said Republican Sen. Lyle Hillyard of Logan. He said he would oppose Urquhart's proposal.

Democratic Sen. Luz Escamilla of Salt Lake City said she would support Urquhart's proposal but didn't know where her Democratic colleagues stood and whether their support might help it pass the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Urquhart said he's been discussing it with his colleagues and thinks it may pass the Senate.

"If you're betting, bet against it," he said. "But I'm kind of optimistic. We are a libertarian state and that leads us to do some interesting things at times."

Source: Associated Press, Feb. 16, 2016

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