Cost of Capital Punishment Merits Attention
When does the monetary cost incurred by government in seeking to dispense
the ultimate retribution to those who commit heinous murders become too high
to justify? How much is endmost revenge worth in spending taxpayer funds?
Can capital punishment be too expensive and irresponsibly wasteful,
especially when other crime-fighting and crime-solving needs are
Nebraska appears to be in a phase of its death-penalty history that has
some lawmakers and others asking legitimate and serious questions about the
economic drain and cost-effectiveness of continuing to hang onto the death
penalty as the sentence for aggravated first-degree murder. The obvious,
less costly alternative would be maximum-security imprisonment for life,
with the only possibility of parole resting with three, statewide-elected
officials—the Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State—and their
rarely used constitutional authority to commute life sentences to terms of
Last year, rooted on by lobbyists for the Governor and the Attorney
General, a clear-cut majority of the Nebraska legislators resurrected the
death penalty. They did so by amending state law to establish lethal
injection as the method for execution. This was in reaction to the Nebraska
Supreme Court having ruled that the longstanding, sole method—death by
electrocution—was unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment.
During intense debate on the issue, several legislators saw the policy
situation as it truly was: an opportunity to move past the economic, moral
and legal burdens of the death penalty and toward more effective responses
to crime and violence. They brought attention to the issue of cost
effectiveness. That didn’t affect the legislative outcome, but it raised
real issues, which won’t disappear.
Now, this year, in a new session of the Legislature, the issues have
already re-surfaced. It happened last week when LB 306 was called for
General File (first round) debate. The bill, chiefly sponsored by Senator
Brenda Council of Omaha, proposed to replace the death penalty with a
sentence of life without possibility of parole (subject to that sole
exception) and with an order of restitution.
LB 306 didn’t have a chance of advancing, but it created another
opportunity for Senator Council and Senator Danielle Conrad in particular,
to emphasize the issues of cost and cost effectiveness.
Senator Council offered an amendment that called for an official state
audit on the comparative costs of the death penalty and incarceration for
life relative to the 11 convicted murderers now on death row.
Senator Conrad, a member of the Appropriations Committee, made an
especially good point when she cited the fact that due almost entirely to
budget constraints—lack of funds to spend—the manpower of the Nebraska State
Patrol is at its lowest level since fiscal year 1985-86. Public safety takes
a hit, while the death penalty racks up costs.
Even though Senator Council’s amendment to study monetary costs was
decisively rejected, it did lead her to introduce the same idea in the form
of another, separate bill. LB 1075 will continue the discussion, because it
will have a public hearing in front of the Legislature’s Judiciary
Committee, probably in late February.
Numerous studies from other states have found that the death penalty is
incredibly expensive, costing millions more than a sentence of life without
parole. Many of the extra costs are legally mandated, to reduce the risk of
executing an innocent person.
Just last October, a report by the Death Penalty Information Center,
citing figures compiled from several states, including Florida, Kansas and
California, found that death-penalty costs can average $10 million more per
year per state than life sentences.
In December, an economist from Duke University published a study that
found that North Carolina would have a net savings of $11 million per year
if it replaced its death penalty with imprisonment for life without parole.
Nebraska doesn’t know its death-penalty costs, because there hasn’t been a
serious effort to find out. LB 1075 is a vehicle to direct and facilitate
just such an effort. Nebraskans ought to know.
Some legislators say deterrence is worth whatever it costs. But deterrence
as a justification for the death penalty has been consistently dismantled by
facts and logic, to the point it’s unreliable, if not irrelevant.
Some legislators, perhaps even a majority, hold a view that they don’t
need to know or care to know the cost comparison, because it won’t make any
difference. For them, whatever the cost of inflicting death as retribution
and revenge is, it’s necessary and worth it. Apparently, sky’s the limit for
this expenditure of taxpayer funds.
One might have to wait quite a long time to hear any of them say that same
thing about spending for public safety, enhanced law enforcement, the
correctional system, solving cold cases, compensating crime victims, or for
any number of education and human service programs.
You can contact Jim at the
Nebraska Catholic Conference, 215 Centennial Mall South
Suite 310, Lincoln, NE 68508;