In a recent poll conducted by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center, Kentuckians were asked if they would support life without parole instead of the death penalty if it were shown that using the death penalty costs substantially more than imprisonment for life without release.
More than two-thirds, 68 percent, chose to support life without parole instead of continue to use the costly system now in place.
Though lawmakers from both parties have tried to get the General Assembly to approve a thorough study of the costs of the death penalty to taxpayers, legislators have refused to support their legislation. Click here or here to see legislation filed in 2015. Not having a formal study makes it difficult to say what the exact costs are in Kentucky, but it is reasonable to conclude that Kentucky, like states where studies have been conducted, spends far more on pursuit of death sentences than it would if death were not an option.
In our neighboring state of Tennessee two Republican state representatives, Steve McManus and Mark White, called capital punishment “a lousy return on our investment” in a column for The Commercial Appeal, a Memphis newspaper. Citing a study in North Carolina that shows that state spending $11 million-per-year and estimating that Tennessee’s costs is similar, they suggested how those funds could be better spent on “270 patrol officers. 361 state troopers. 228 detectives and criminal investigators. 110 new school buses. 239 teachers. Compensation for 367 crime victims and their families.”
KCADP agrees and 68 percent of Kentuckians are willing to give up the death penalty because of its high cost and use life without parole.
Richard Dieter, former director of the Death Penalty Information Center, testified in 2012 before the Kentucky Senate Judiciary Committee and included the following in his remarks:
In New Jersey, police chief James Abbott served on the commission that reviewed that state’s death penalty law. He concluded that the money spent on the death penalty was wasteful and that there were better ways to reduce crime. He wrote: “I no longer believe that you can fix the death penalty. Six months of study opened my eyes to its shocking reality. I learned that the death penalty throws millions of dollars down the drain — money that I could be putting directly to work fighting crime every day — while dragging victims’ families through a long and torturous process that only exacerbates their pain. . . As a police chief, I find this use of state resources offensive. . . . Give a law enforcement professional like me that $250 million, and I’ll show you how to reduce crime. The death penalty isn’t anywhere on my list.”
There is some evidence and data about the cost in Kentucky. It is important to note that the Commonwealth Attorneys Association and the Attorney General have not provided any assessment of what it costs their offices to prosecute these cases. But we do have information from the Department of Public Advocacy in a 2009 letter from Ed Monahan, the Public Advocate for Kentucky, to the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission staff:
Total Current DPA Cost Per Year
Estimating death penalty costs to Kentucky since 1976 is difficult. A proper calculation of costs associated with the death penalty statewide would require a formal study. Any references to costs outside the context of a completed study can only be estimates. These estimates likely understate actual costs because many of the costs of death penalty representation are hidden. The majority of death penalty costs do not appear as line items in any budget.
Nevertheless, of the line items specifically set aside for death penalty representation, DPA estimates that the Department currently spends approximately $3 million a year on death penalty representation. This does not include the additional spending by the judiciary, the prosecutors, and Corrections.
It is clear from this polling data that Kentuckians want a cost-effective punishment that holds violent murderers accountable, punishing them severely while protecting the public from them. And 68 percent believe life without parole is that punishment.
Graphic: created by KCADP using data provided by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center