But what if we talked about cost? Last week, the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center released a report that charts the cost — in dollars — of capital punishment.
It's not cheap to kill people. By some estimates, the country has spent $2.5 billion since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976. That's the conservative figure, and that's over and above what would have been spent had the maximum sentence for death row inmates been life without parole, the report said.
Nationwide, some 3,300 inmates sit on death row. Ten of those are in Connecticut, where we await the trials early next year of the two suspects in the awful 2007 Petit murders. It is impossible to calmly look at the details of that crime — murder, rape, arson, assault, home invasion — but then, it's always the worst-case scenario that makes us examine how we punish, like serial killer Michael Ross, who was executed in 2005 for multiple rapes and murders he committed in the early '80s.
"You have people who are angry about cases, but it's a very expensive anger," said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the center. "And it's not just the financial cost. Something is being given up to keep the death penalty." And that something just might be more effective in deterring crime.
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Last year, a California justice commission said the cash-strapped state (which has the most death row inmates in the country) was paying $137 million a year to maintain the death penalty; by comparison, the state would have spent $11.5 million a year if those same inmates were sentenced to life without parole.
Once the death penalty is part of the equation, the wheels of justice turn more slowly — and at a higher cost. And still people get sentenced wrongfully, but that's another column.
Considering the potential for years of appeals, Dieter said that "during that time, lives could have been saved with, say, more police officers on the street. Or teachers. Whether it's police, teachers or youth workers, these things actually reduce crime." Even police chiefs aren't convinced the death penalty is a effective deterrent.
In a survey included in the report, chiefs from around the country placed increased use of capital punishment last on a list of deterrents. Increasing law enforcement resources was first, along with reducing drug and alcohol abuse. Only about a quarter of the chiefs surveyed said murderers consider their possible punishment before they act. Fifty-seven percent said capital punishment does little to prevent violent crimes.
Dieter said the poll was "reassuring and not completely surprising." "They are not afraid to say what a lot of politicians won't say, that the death penalty isn't working," said Dieter. In fact, Connecticut legislators said precisely that last spring. They sent a bill banning capital punishment to Gov. M. Jodi Rell, but she vetoed it.
Earlier this year, New Mexico abolished its death penalty under a governor — Bill Richardson — who also supported execution as an option. Dieter says that every state that has stepped away from public executions has done so after stops and starts and painful debate.
THE HARTFORD COURANT