ILNews

Balancing philosophical with practical concerns regarding death penalty

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Cost of Justice

Putting a price tag on the cost of capital punishment isn’t easy, and so trying to answer the question about whether the death penalty is worth that cost is even more difficult.

Society can mull the morals of whether the state should execute the most violent offenders. Prosecutors push to speak for those victimized by these “worst types of crime” and keep communities safe, while defense attorneys advocate for the rights of those accused or convicted to make sure the process works correctly. Meanwhile, the courts navigate that long road full of murky legal issues while policymakers debate the death penalty from all sides.

DeathNumbersIn the end, none of those involved in the debate seem to have a clear picture of what the true cost of capital punishment is, and the answer to the question of whether it serves the intended purpose depends on who is asked.

“The possibility of actually executing a person for whom the death penalty is sought is less than 5 percent, and any other government program that had such a dismal ‘success’ rate would be scrapped in a New York minute,” said

Indianapolis defense attorney Monica Foster, who’s handled as many as 40 capital cases within Indiana but has consulted on hundreds nationally. “We spend astronomical amounts of money trying to kill people who do not end up being killed by the government. If we really care about preventing violent crime and its victims, a good place to start would be to redirect money spent trying to kill people to programs that have proven to decrease childhood poverty, neglect, and abuse.

That is what many states are already doing, and others are considering.

Death sentences nationally and statewide have plunged to their lowest levels in recent years due to concerns about wrongful convictions and executing the innocent, procedural hurdles within the legal system, and the high financial cost of capital punishment that typically comes with these cases.

In March, Illinois became the 16th state to stop using this penalty, following a legislative moratorium imposed in 2000 and studies revealing how flawed the capital system has become. Part of that Illinois law reallocates money that would have been used for death penalty cases to services for victims’ families and law enforcement training.

Indiana hasn’t stopped utilizing capital punishment, despite a report in 2007 that recommended a moratorium because of some of those same flaws and arbitrary uses of the death sentence here.

But now, the Indiana attorney general is leading an effort to scrutinize the economic impacts of the death penalty to help decide whether it should stand. A first-of-its kind criminal justice summit was held in November at Notre Dame Law School, bringing about 75 members of the legal community from all sides of the debate together to consider that impact.

greg zoeller Zoeller

“So, it is time that we in the criminal justice system have a candid conversation about the economic impact of capital punishment here,” Attorney General Greg Zoeller said. “I don’t claim to know the answers; but as state government’s lawyer sworn to uphold the laws of Indiana, I hope we can trigger a frank discussion of these questions.”

Moving target

Finding an accurate accounting of the costs is difficult, largely because a comprehensive study hasn’t been done recently and scattered information paints incomplete pictures.

Nearly a decade ago, the Indiana Criminal Law Study Commission issued a report on capital sentencing and found death penalty costs are generally more than 20 percent greater than the total cost of life without parole, depending greatly on whether death sentences are overturned and defendants are resentenced to life in prison. That report analyzed both the trial-level and appellate phases, as well as incarceration and other aspects that address the cost.

Nothing that comprehensive has been done since, although the Legislative Services Agency did a cost analysis during the 2010 legislative session of data from 2000 to 2007 to assist lawmakers considering a bill that allowed judges to enhance sentences for certain crimes and added aggravating circumstances for murder cases.

landis-larry-mug Landis

Specifically, the analysis used Indiana Public Defender Commission figures from six cases during those years to calculate an average cost of $449,887 for the death penalty trials and direct appeals. This did not include expenses for prosecutors, sheriffs, and courts. Comparatively, the average cost of trials and appeals seeking life without parole was $42,658, according to the non-partisan agency.

All Hoosier counties can receive 50 percent reimbursement from the state for defense costs in capital cases under Indiana Criminal Rule 24, and that data is what has been used to compile the cost-analyses. Similar state information isn’t tracked by the prosecution side and it’s often weaved into the budgets for local prosecutors or the state AG’s office that handles these cases on appeal. Some states’ bar associations survey their attorneys and prosecutors on these costs and have found estimates range between $200,000 and $250,000 more than the costs of non-capital trials.

Former Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Stan Levco, who spent three decades in that position before leaving at the end of 2010, says the current capital system in this state is nearly broken.

“It’s almost to the point where it’s no longer viable, and unless we decrease the costs, it’s not worth it,” he said.

stewart-steve-mug Stewart

Clark County Prosecutor Steve Stewart, considered an expert on the death penalty and the author of an annual update on cases and issues statewide, argues that it’s the defense costs that run so high because of Criminal Rule 24 and courts often rubber stamp any requests that are made.

“Prosecutors are scared to death about filing a death penalty case and risk their office budget, or bankrupting their county budget,” he said. “If it doesn’t change, those costs are going to force us out of the capital punishment business.”

Even if the system needs change, Stewart and others are adamant that capital punishment is worth keeping on the books because it offers what even life without parole does not: a guarantee that someone will not be able to further endanger society.

Prosecutors contend the reimbursement structure needs revision, possibly balancing the cost or giving prosecutors more of a voice in what can and cannot be expensed. Defense attorneys agree that something does need to change, but some of those arguments go to the deeper question of whether capital sentences are needed in the first place.

Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender’s Council, says the debate about the death penalty boils down to a philosophical difference between the two sets of attorneys and he wonders now why there’s still a question about whether capital punishment is worth it or not.

“You really have to wonder why we’re going through this death dance, banging this drum the way we do when it’s so unnecessary because many are willing to plead out to life from day one,” he said. “But rather than doing that, we go through punishment for the sake of punishment and the meter is running the whole time to get to the same result.”

• Coverage on this capital punishment cost will continue in the May 11-24, 2011, issue of Indiana Lawyer, with a look at the long path through the legal process and what that can cost emotionally for those on the victim’s side.•

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Indiana State Bar Association

Indianapolis Bar Association

Evansville Bar Association

Allen County Bar Association

Indiana Lawyer on Facebook

facebook
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Dr wail asfour lives 3 hours from the hospital,where if he gets an emergency at least he needs three hours,while even if he is on call he should be in a location where it gives him max 10 minutes to be beside the patient,they get paid double on their on call days ,where look how they handle it,so if the death of the patient occurs on weekend and these doctors still repeat same pattern such issue should be raised,they should be closer to the patient.on other hand if all the death occured on the absence of the Dr and the nurses handle it,the nurses should get trained how to function appearntly they not that good,if the Dr lives 3 hours far from the hospital on his call days he should sleep in the hospital

  2. It's a capital offense...one for you Latin scholars..

  3. I would like to suggest that you train those who search and help others, to be a Confidential Intermediary. Original Birth Certificates should not be handed out "willie nillie". There are many Birth Parents that have never told any of their families about, much less their Husband and Children about a baby born prior to their Mother's marriage. You can't go directly to her house, knock on her door and say I am the baby that you had years ago. This is what an Intermediary does as well as the search. They are appointed by by the Court after going through training and being Certified. If you would like, I can make a copy of my Certificate to give you an idea. you will need to attend classes and be certified then sworn in to follow the laws. I still am active and working on 5 cases at this time. Considering the fact that I am listed as a Senior Citizen, that's not at all bad. Being Certified is a protection for you as well as the Birth Mother. I have worked with many adoptees as well as the Birth Parents. They will also need understanding, guidance, and emotional help to deal with their own lost child and the love and fear that they have had locked up for all these years. If I could talk with those involved with the legal end, as well as those who do the searches and the Birth Mothers that lost their child, we JUST might find an answer that helps all of those involved. I hope that this will help you and others in the future. If you need to talk, I am listed with the Adoption Agencies here in Michigan. They can give you my phone number. My email address is as follows jatoz8@yahoo.com. Make sure that you use the word ADOPTION as the subject. Thank you for reading my message. Jeanette Abronowitz.

  4. The promise of "Not to Tell" is the biggest lie ever given to a Birth Mother. THERE WERE NEVER ANY PROMISES GIVEN TO ANY OF US. One of the lies used to entice us to give up our Babies. There were many tactics used to try to convince us that it was best for Mother and Baby to cut the cord at birth. They have no idea of the pain and heartache that was caused by their attitude. The only thing that mattered was how great and wonderful they appeared to the prospective parents and their community. I completed my search, but that didn't stop the pain, heartbreak and the tears of the last 62 Years. I keep track and do know that he is alive, well educated and a musician. That little knowledge in itself is a Godsend to me. I pray that other Mothers also know that much and more to help heal their pain and open wounds. open wounds.

  5. please do your firm handles cases on breach of contract? please advise...

ADVERTISEMENT