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Kentucky ‘Senate Judiciary Committee Discusses Abolition of Death Penalty’

Kentucky Sen. Gerald Neal

Kentucky Sen. Gerald Neal (D-Jefferson County)

From the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission:

FRANKFORT –The Senate Judiciary Committee last week discussed Senator Gerald A. Neal’s bill to abolish the death penalty in Kentucky and resolution establishing a task force to study the death penalty.  The hearing represented an historic day in the Commonwealth because this is the first time that legislation abolishing the death penalty has received a hearing in a Senate committee.

“The capital punishment system is dysfunctional and broken,” said Senator Neal, D-Louisville. “Furthermore, it is a drain on the state. Cost studies from other states reveal it can cost millions of dollars to execute one person. As an example, a death penalty case in Texas costs an additional $2.3 million per case – about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years. And, these costs, borne by taxpayers, are rising.”

Senate Concurrent Resolution 190 would establish a Task Force on the Costs of the Death Penalty in Kentucky.  If the resolution gains approval this session, the task force would submit a detailed analysis of all costs associated with the administration of the death penalty in the state, the number and outcomes of death-eligible cases, and any other mandated objectives in conformity with the provisions of the resolution to the Legislative Research Commission by Nov. 30, 2012.

Senate Bill 63 would abolish capital punishment replacing it with a maximum penalty of imprisonment for life without parole. It would also replace currently existing death sentences with life without parole, and amend statues to remove references to the death penalty and make murder a Class A felony rather than a capital offense.

The bill would make life without parole for 25 years the maximum penalty for a juvenile who has committed a Class A felony. It would allow exculpatory DNA testing for offenders whose sentence is modified from death to life without parole, under the same terms as those currently existing for DNA testing in a capital case.

A new study in California shows that the cost of the death penalty has been over $4 billion since 1978. In Maryland, an average death penalty case resulting in a death sentence costs approximately $3 million. The eventual costs to Maryland taxpayers for cases pursued 1978-1999 will be $186 million. Five executions have been carried out in Maryland, translating into a cost of $37 million for each one. In Kansas, the costs of capital cases are 70 percent more expensive than comparable non-capital cases.

“Since November 2011, 78 people have been sentenced to death in Kentucky, and 52 of those have had a death sentence overturned, producing an error rate of approximately 60 percent,” said Senator Neal. “An American Bar Association team assessing the death penalty in Kentucky questioned whether the state’s resources are well spent on the current error-prone system.

“When the state pursues the death penalty, studies in other states have shown that it costs significantly more than a sentence of life without parole,” he added.

Sixteen states and the District of Colombia do not have capital punishment – in the last four years, four states (New York, New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois) have abandoned it. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 140 people have been released from death row for reasons of innocence. From 1973-1999, there was an average of three exonerations per year, and from 2000-2011, there have been an average of five exonerations per year.

More than one-third of Kentucky’s 35  death-row inmates have been there at least two decades. Evidence suggests that the greatest costs associated with the death penalty occur prior to and during trial, not in post-conviction proceedings.

“Even if we abolished appeals, the death penalty would still be more expensive than alternative sentences,” said Senator Neal. “The death penalty diverts resources from genuine crime control measures.”

Senator Neal said that he hopes SCR 190 is passed this session so task force members can look closely at the costs associated with the death penalty in Kentucky.

Senator Neal, who represents the 33rd District that includes a portion of Jefferson County, has been a longtime advocate of Penal Code Reform – legislation that passed during the 2011 Legislative Session.

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