Florida's public defenders are pushing the Legislature to temporarily end the death penalty this year, but the focus is not about morality, or the possibility of executing an innocent person.
The state could save money -- some estimates are $51 million a year -- if it temporarily stopped seeking the death penalty for defendants and executing death row inmates, a Polk County assistant public defender told state senators this month.
"Right now the whole question is: 'Can we afford to keep doing this with all the other cuts that are being made?'" Rex Dimmig said in an interview this week.
In a year when Florida and other states are facing budget crunches, the cost of enforcing the death penalty suddenly has become the hot argument for those opposing the ultimate punishment for criminals across the country.
Putting a stop to the death penalty in Florida is a long shot at best. State Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chair of the committee that funds the criminal justice system, calls the idea "ridiculous."
Florida voters overwhelmingly voted for the death penalty in a referendum, Crist said, and the issue of having the ultimate penalty for the most heinous of crimes is not about money.
But other states are going to give serious consideration to dropping their death penalty based on cost this year, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Maryland is about to vote on the issue after learning the state spent $37 million per execution over the past 28 years, Dieter said. New Jersey cited cost as part of the reason in a vote to drop the death penalty there last year.
Close financial scrutiny of death penalty programs has not happened for a long time because it has usually been debated on moral grounds in easier budget times, Dieter said.
"It's caught up in emotional issues, victims and police and crime," Dieter said. "Now, it's going to be put to the test that many government programs have."
Florida has never had an official study looking at the cost of the death penalty. The most widely quoted cost analysis is a 2000 report in The Palm Beach Post that concluded the state spends $24 million to execute each person because of appeals that stretch an average of 12 years.
In the alternative, it costs the state $72 per day to house an inmate on a life sentence, or about $1.3 million over 50 years, the paper found.
There are currently 392 inmates on death row in Florida, which has executed an average of 2.6 people per year in the last few decades.
California spends $138 million a year on the death penalty, while executing less than one person every two years, a recent study found.
The death penalty cases are costly for the court system, particularly for public defenders across Florida who have already been forced to cut budgets, lay off some employees and force others to take unpaid furloughs this year.
Crist said he doubts the state would save that much money ending the death penalty.
"I don't see how that's possible," Crist said. "It would be marginal."
The majority of any savings would go to the Florida Department of Corrections, not the public defenders, he said.
After debates about the death penalty earlier this decade, the state increased spending to make the death penalty system ensure that no innocent people are executed, Crist said.
(Source : Sarasota Herald-Tribune.com)