Morality aside, death penalty far more costly than life terms

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Morality aside, death penalty far more costly than life terms. In the 2005, jurors in FranklinCounty, Ohio, were asked 4 times whether the death penalty should be imposed. On Sept. 27, convicted killer Herman Ashworth was executed for a murder he committed in Newark.

The morality of the death penalty is a subject of debate, but maybe there is a better question to ask: Is the death penalty cost-efficient? Few in-depth cost studies have been done on this, but most information suggests that death-penalty cases are too costly.

The Indianapolis Star reported in February 1999 that 2 high-profile capital cases in 1996 and 1997 cost $571,000 and $352,000, respectively. In February 1999, The Dispatch reported the estimated cost of prosecuting Wilford Berry to be approximately $1 million and the cost of his defense at approximately $500,000.

According to The New York Law Journal in April 2002, the district attorneys in Monroe and Queens counties in New York estimated that the death penalty increases the cost of prosecuting a case at least threefold. An audit of the Kansas Department of Corrections in 2003 estimated the median cost of a case where the death penalty was imposed to be about 70 % more than the median cost of other cases.

Perhaps the most comprehensive study was by Duke University in May 1993: Researchers estimated the cost of a capital case murder trial in North Carolina to be $84,000 and the cost of a noncapital murder trial to be $17,000.

Why such a great difference? Juror questioning is more involved and much longer and, often, more experts are hired. A capital case involves a two-part trial, the first to determine liability and the 2nd for sentencing. Noncapital cases do not involve the second phase.

By statute, defendants in a capital case must be represented by two attorneys. Often those facing the death penalty are indigent, meaning the cost of defense is borne by the state.

Death sentences lead to a lengthy series of post-conviction proceedings in state and federal courts. Hard data for related costs are scant, but the Duke study found that these proceedings alone in 2 cases cost $293,000 and $219,000.

Because convicted killers generally spend several years on death row, the Duke study compared the total cost of a capital case resulting in the death penalty (including post-conviction proceedings) and 10 years of incarceration with the cost of a noncapital murder case and 20 years of incarceration. The result? The capital cases in which the death penalty was imposed cost an additional $216,000 each, and because not all capital cases result in the death penalty, the cost per execution was estimated at $2.16 million.

The expense associated with capital cases in FranklinCounty becomes evident when taking into account fees and expenses paid to court-appointed defense counsels. In fiscal year 2004, Franklin County paid $2.84 million to court appointed attorneys to handle 2,364 felony cases, which included noncapital murder cases, but $1.03 million for just 37 capital cases. In fiscal 2003, the numbers were $2.7 million for 2,372 felony cases and $528,000 for 24 capital cases. These numbers do not reflect the other fees or expense associated with the Public Defenders Office or the prosecuting attorney’s office, as neither separates capital cases from other cases in its budget.

The death penalty has 3 significant aspects. First, capital cases seldom result in the imposition of the death penalty. Since 1981, FranklinCounty juries recommended the death penalty 18 times, but the number of capital cases tried is much larger. In 2003 and 2004 alone, only 3 of 19 capital cases in FranklinCounty state and federal courts resulted in the death penalty.

Also, death sentences result in lengthy imprisonment. In Ohio, 189 inmates are on death row. Of these, 112 have been there since at least 1995, and 52 have been there since at least 1987.

The average age at death for inmates serving a life sentence is 56, and the average age of inmates when admitted to death row is 30. If we eliminate the death penalty and award only life sentences, we would be incarcerating killers on the average for 26 years, just 16 years longer than we incarcerate them during their post-conviction proceedings.

Instead of incarcerating death row inmates for 10 years during their post-conviction proceedings, why not dispense with the death penalty and imprison all killers for life and, where appropriate, without the possibility of parole?

Based on the Duke study, the additional years of incarceration would be offset by substantial savings that come with less-expensive trials and the absence of lengthy post-conviction proceedings.

But what are the real numbers for Ohio? What would a well-defined and administered study reveal? The results might be alarming.

Debating morality is tough stuff. But money? We probably can agree on that.

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