Death and taxes: Are conservatives cooling on capital punishment?

    A lot of conservatives, who once equated capital punishment with being “tough on crime,” are increasingly concerned about that cost.

    The death penalty has become steadily less popular for a host of reasons – the DNA tests that have exonerated scores of death row inmates, the racial bias in sentencing, the lack of deterrence evidence, the shortage of swift execution drugs (Oklahoma’s recent killing took 40 torturous minutes) – but the most powerful “anti” argument, and arguably the crassest, is the prohibitive cost.

    A lot of conservatives, who once equated capital punishment with being “tough on crime,” are increasingly concerned about that cost. After all, there’s nothing they hate more than an expensive, inefficient government program borne by the taxpayers. And government murder is Exhibit A.

    Frankly, the initial reasons cited above should be enough to sour most Americans – and, morally speaking, do we really want to be ranked with Iran, China, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia as the world’s top execution nations? – but if a group like Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty wants to highlight the dollars and cents, then fine.

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    Gallup says that 60 percent of Americans support the death penalty, but that’s a 40-year low. Eighteen states have already abolished it, six of them (including New Jersey) in the last seven years. So my advice to Marc Hyden, co-leader of Conservatives Concerned, is simple: Go for it, dude.

    Hyden has been stumping lately in red states. Basically, he rightly says, the death penalty is way more expensive than life without parole – because the trials are far longer, the appeals process is far longer, the administrative court costs are higher, the death row tab is higher (single rooms only, extra guards), and many more factors. Hyden tells his listeners, “This should be offensive to conservatives. We’re supposed to be stewards of the taxpayers’ hard-earned money.”

    Some death-penalty red states are documenting those costs. In a new report, released earlier this year, Kansas has discovered that the cost of a typical death penalty case is “significantly higher” – four times higher – than all other kinds. The trials are twice as long, the death row costs are twice as high, and, in terms of hours on the job, Kansas Supreme Court judges work 20 times longer on death penalty cases than on all other kinds.

    In another new report, the state of Idaho says that its Appellate Public Defenders office spends nearly 44 times more labor on a typical death penalty appeal than on a life sentence appeal (8,000 hours versus 180 hours). The death penalty cases with trials take nearly twice as long as the non-capital cases with trials. State officials didn’t tally the cost differentials, but it’s well known that Idaho prosecutors rarely seek death for first-degree murder defendants anymore – only 17 percent of the time since 1998.

    Other states have vividly tracked the costs. My favorite is New Jersey. Shortly before the Garden State abolished its death penalty, a policy group tallied the taxpayer tab. This was the group’s conclusion: “New Jersey taxpayers over the last 23 years have paid more than a quarter billion dollars on a capital punishment system that has executed no one.” Perhaps that $253,000,000 could’ve been spent more wisely in other ways, like building schools.

    The list goes on – the state of California has spent $4 billion on death penalty cases since 1978, but snuffed only 13 people, which translates to $309,000,000 per execution; Tennessee says its death penalty trials cost roughly 50 percent more than other trials – but you get the idea. And when you factor in all the DNA exonerations, it further inflames conservatives’ hostility to government. Some Republican lawmakers in red-state Kentucky are floating a bill to abolish the death penalty, because, in their words, conservatives “should not support a state government program that can kill innocent people.”

    Go for it, guys. Bang away on government. Marc Hyden’s uncle, a Georgia Republican committeeman, says, “If you can’t really trust government to fill a pothole, how can you trust government to do the right thing on a life and death decision?” Especially when government is wasting so much money on those decisions. Some conservatives in North Carolina are talking up a Duke University study which says that the states’ taxpayers could save $11 million a year if the death penalty was replaced by life imprisonment.

    As one conservative commentator wrote – this was four years ago, on the Fox News website – “Forget justice, morality, the possibility of killing an innocent man or any of the traditional arguments that have been part of the public debate over the death penalty. The new one is this: The cost of killing killers is killing us.”

    Way to go, Fox News guy. Hey, maybe abolition is a rare issue that can unite liberals and conservatives…the left talks race and morality, the right wears the green eyeshade…strange bedfellows, consorting at last!Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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