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‘It’s irresponsible to not at least know what those costs are.’

Sen. Gerald Neal and Rep. David Floyd (in front) are joined by murder victim family members Ben Griffith and Ruth Lowe, and Catholic Conference of Ky. executive director Jason Hall at a Feb. 2014 news conference at the state capital.

Faced with a broken death penalty system that appears costly and wasteful, two Kentucky lawmakers are urging their colleagues to allow a study that examines what this is really costing Kentucky’s taxpayers. According to a report by Kentucky Public News Service, Attorney General Jack Conway continues to reject the idea, saying it is not easy to determine these costs.

According to the story, Sen. Gerald Neal and Rep. David Floyd indicated that public defenders have provided estimates of what the Department of Public Advocacy spends while working to defend clients facing the death penalty.

After posting the story on the KCADP Facebook page, death penalty advocate Tony Nichols commented and raised several excellent questions. Believing that others would be seeking answers to similar questions, posted below are links to excellent materials about the cost of the death penalty in states where cost studies like the one Sen. Neal and Rep. Floyd are seeking have already been completed.

The most recent, as the KPNS article points out, was in the state of Washington. Law professors at Seattle University found that each death penalty case cost an average of $1 million more than a similar case where the death penalty was not sought ($3.07 million, versus $2.01 million). Defense costs were about three times as high in death penalty cases and prosecution costs were as much as four times higher than for non-death penalty cases. Criminal Justice Professor Peter Collins, the lead author of the study, said,

What this provides is evidence of the costs of death-penalty cases, empirical evidence. We went into it [the study] wanting to remain objective. This is purely about the economics; whether or not it’s worth the investment is up to the public, the voters of Washington and the people we elected.

SeattlePI is reporting that the mayor of Seattle, Edward Murray, the city attorney, Pete Holmes, and all nine Seattle council members have written state legislators urging them to seek “a safe and just alternative to the death penalty.” SeattlePI writes,

Enormous costs incurred prosecuting death penalty cases through years of appeal have figured prominently in both the Olympia legislation and the Seattle officials’ letter.

“We only cite the last three cases here: They’re at $15 million and counting,” Holmes said. “We can debate endlessly whether a defendant deserves to die. The question is whether that is valid reason to spend $15 million in public funds.”

In their letter the city officials argued,

. . .as the cost to taxpayers for three current capital cases in King County rises above $15 million, we see an urgent need to reform this costly and ineffective practice of our criminal justice system.

Local government and communities would benefit from using this money for victim support programs, stronger investigative units and violence prevention.

Attorney General Conway may be right; it might not be easy to determine the costs. But law firms do it all the time; they know how much to bill each client, down to the quarter-hour. Good public servants are accountable to the taxpayers for whom they work. As Sen. Neal told KPNS,

“It’s irresponsible to not at least know what those costs are,” Neal said, “and how they effect the bottom line of the Commonwealth.”

The links below lead readers to an article about the Washington study which appeared in the Seattle Times as well as a link to the complete study where anyone who wishes will find answers to the questions raised in Tony Nichols’ Facebook post. Richard Dieter who directs the Death Penalty Information Center testified before the Kentucky Senate Judiciary Committee on March 1, 2012. You can read that testimony here.

(J. Sullivan, “Seeking death penalty adds $1M to prosecution cost, study says,” Seattle Times, January 7, 2015; P. Collins, et al., “An Analysis of the Economic Costs of Seeking the Death Penalty in Washington State,” Seattle University, January 1, 2015). See Costs and Studies.

Photo: courtesy Ky. Legislature Research Commission Public Information

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