IBJOpinion

KENNEDY: Death (penalty) and taxes aren't certainties after all

Sheila Suess Kennedy
April 2, 2011
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Sheila Suess KennedyThese days, those of us who follow policy debates are suffering from overload: same-sex marriage, immigration policy, foreign policy—not to mention the re-emergence of pocketbook issues like collective bargaining rights—are generating lots of heat, if distressingly little light.

And then, of course, there are the perennial complaints about taxes.

Everyone, it seems, wants government to cost less—until someone suggests cuts to our particular sacred cows. In Washington, we see lawmakers eager to de-fund Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio become livid when someone suggests cutting military spending. Here in Indiana, an eminently reasonable proposal by Gov. Mitch Daniels and the chief justice to incarcerate fewer nonviolent offenders and save the billions of tax dollars that we would otherwise spend building additional prisons has been eviscerated by defenders of “law and order.”

In fact, the criminal-justice system offers one of the best opportunities to save significant tax dollars, beginning with abolition of the death penalty. 

People have different opinions about the morality of capital punishment, and I leave those arguments to ethicists and theologians. There are, however, some pretty compelling practical and fiscal arguments for abolition.

As a practical matter, years of scholarship have confirmed that capital punishment is not a deterrent. In 2009, states with the death penalty had murder rates of 5.2 per 100,000 residents; in states without, the rate was 3.9—a 35-percent difference. Police agree. In a recent poll, police chiefs ranked the death penalty last among ways to reduce violent crime; they also considered it the least efficient use of taxpayer money, and complained that it diverted money from more effective crime-control measures.

Which brings us to the fiscal issues.

In 2010, the Indiana Legislative Services Agency analyzed capital-punishment costs in Indiana, and determined that the average cost of a capital trial and direct appeal was $449,000—more than 10 times the $42,658 cost of a life-without-parole case. In California, taxpayers pay $114 million more each year than it would cost to keep those same offenders imprisoned for life. In Kansas, capital cases are 70 percent more expensive than non-capital cases, even including the costs of lifelong incarceration. In Texas, a death-penalty case costs three times what it would cost to imprison someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years.

Advocates of the death penalty often complain that the higher costs are a result of “interminable appeals,” but that isn’t actually true. Appeals do add costs, but a capital trial is very expensive. Cells on death row and extra staff cost more. 

We could eliminate appeals and execute people immediately upon conviction. That would save money. Unfortunately, such a proposal raises another pesky problem we have with capital punishment—the fact that we convict innocent people. Since 1973, over 130 people have been released from death row because they were found to be innocent. These were not folks freed on a “technicality”; they were people wrongfully convicted.

One of those people will be in Indianapolis on April 14. Randy Steidl will speak at the IUPUI Campus Center at 7 p.m. about the 17 years he spent on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Randy comes from a law-abiding middle-class family; his brother is a retired state trooper. His story is troubling, to say the least: There was evidence of the sort of police and prosecutorial misconduct that—more often than we might like to think—accompanies the rush to solve high-profile murders.

As Steidl says, “If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone.”

I guess that’s one of those “moral” arguments I said I wasn’t going to make.•

__________

Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. Her column appears monthly. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com.
 

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