Death penalty: a price too high
Published Wednesday, February 25, 2009
As the Florida Legislature looks for ways to save money, the state's public defenders have an idea worth considering: Suspend the death penalty. It would save the state a fortune.
Debate about the state's ultimate punishment usually centers on philosophical issues, not financial ones. But there's no denying that the death penalty, per prisoner, is an expensive element of the criminal justice system. Once a prosecutor indicates he will seek the death penalty, the meter starts to run and costs escalate:
• Defendants facing the death penalty must receive two experienced defense lawyers, both with special credentials, according to Howard (Rex) Dimmig, an assistant public defender and spokesman for the Florida Public Defender Association.
• Trial judges must be specially trained to hear death penalty cases, and then, for every prisoner on death row convicted in their court, a hearing is held every 90 days, according to Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Robert Morris.
• Florida also pays to represent death row inmates in a series of constitutionally prescribed postconviction appeals that often take years.
• The Florida Supreme Court says it spends 50 percent of its time on death penalty cases.
• The state spends $3.4 million more per year to house death row inmates than prisoners in the general prison population, according to Dimmig.
State lawmakers in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and New Hampshire are making the financial argument to repeal the death penalty, the New York Times reports, and Maryland, Montana and New Mexico may actually do it. Don't expect the pitch to get very far in Florida.
But abolishing the death penalty, while still locking up murderers for life without parole, would save taxpayers millions without compromising their security. Vengeance and retribution, it turns out, are a lot more expensive than public safety.