Why Wisconsin Can't Afford the Death Penalty


Today we have a guest editorial by David Elliot from the Wisconsin Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty - Please remember these facts when you go to vote on Nov. 7. - Ed.

Suppose the Wisconsin Legislature
approved a government spending program that cost taxpayers millions
of dollars, yet failed to provide a single social service or
discernible product.


Heads would roll, and angry voters
would elect someone - a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent,
anyone - to fix the problem and reverse the wasteful spending of
precious tax dollars.


Yet Wisconsin voters today are being
asked to vote in favor of a nonbinding referendum to reinstate the
death penalty - a government program that is immensely costly,
makes mistakes, and, in most cases, fails to execute even those who
end up on death row.

In the past 15 years four states have
reinstated the death penalty: New York (1995), Kansas (1994), New
Jersey (1992), and New Hampshire (1991).


These four states have two things in
common. First, not one of them has executed a single person, nor are
any of them about to. And second, they have spent a combined hundreds
of millions of dollars on not executing people. In other words: these
states created, in most cases, an expensive government program that
has failed to provide a single service or discernible product.


Years ago, when Wisconsin legislators
were yet again debating whether to reinstate the death penalty, the
fiscal policy arm of state government estimated that reinstatement
would require the spending of $285,000 per capital case, plus $1.4
million to build a prison death row and $500,000 a year to staff it.
If anything, based on the experiences of other states, that's way
to low an estimate.


Where does this money come from?


Well, of course it comes from
taxpayers. But taxpayers, through their elected officials make
choices about where dollars get spent - which programs are
prioritized. So, really, the money to pay for Wisconsin's death
penalty would come from our public safety programs. It would come
from our schools. It would come from our hospitals. It would come
from our programs to protect the environment. It would come straight
out of our crime-ridden neighborhoods. It would come from programs
aimed at helping crime victims, or cutting down on drug abuse, or
addressing gang violence.


It would come from all the things that
make us, our families and our communities safe, healthy and whole.


You might be thinking: how in the world
is the death penalty more expensive than life in prison without
parole? It is more expensive first and foremost because death penalty
trials are more expensive. They last longer and require more defense
lawyers, more prosecutors and more expert witnesses. The death
penalty also is more expensive because of the complex and lengthy
appeals process. And the death penalty is more expensive because
death rows require more security and higher ratios of prison staff to
inmates than other types of incarceration.


Don't believe that? Let's go back
and look at the experiences of the states that most recently
reinstated the death penalty. New Jersey has 10 people on death row
and it has spent $253 million not executing them. That's $253
million over and above the cost of life without parole. New York
spent $200 million over a ten-year period not executing its handful
of death row inmates.


In Kansas it is estimated that a single
death penalty case costs $1.26 million - and by the way, they
haven't executed anyone either. And what of New Hampshire, where
residents are proud of their state's history of low taxes and
culture of fiscal conservatism? Perhaps the Granite State is the
smartest: it hasn't sent anyone to death row.


Some might argue, "sure, the death
penalty is expensive, but can we really put a price on justice?"


Maybe not. But we can weigh priorities
and arrive at conclusions. Jonathan Gradess, an expert on assessing
the cost of the death penalty, did that very thing in New Jersey when
he was testifying before a state death penalty study commission.


"At the core of this debate is a
harsh reality," Gradess testified. "There is not a bottomless pit
of funding from which to keep the public safe and serve the needs of
victims' families. It is true, there is no price on justice. But
you can finance programs with a track record of improving public
safety. If you have $250 million to spend on law enforcement over the
next 20 years, ask yourself this: is its most expensive symbol (the
death penalty) really your best answer?"


Wisconsin's population is roughly
two-thirds of New Jersey's. Extrapolating that, and considering New
Jersey's history with the death penalty, Wisconsin can expect to
spend at least $167 million on the death penalty over the next 15
years if voters and state legislators decide to go down this costly,
wasteful and ultimately unsatisfying road. And even at the end of
this 15-year period and $167 million expenditure, there is a very
real possibility that not a single person will have been executed.


All things considered, it is a road
better left untraveled.




October 11, 2006 - 10:23am