This article was published on Forbes.
In October, Oregon’s incumbent governor, Kate Brown, announced that when she wins the 2016 election, she will extend the moratorium on her state’s death penalty. She will do this because, according to her campaign spokesperson, “after thoroughly researching the issue, serious concerns remain about the constitutionality and workability of Oregon’s capital punishment law.”
This is a familiar statement. Not only was something similar used by Governor Brown’s predecessor to put Oregon’s death penalty on hold in 2011, but the same justification has likewise been used recently by several other states. Washington, Pennsylvania and Colorado, amongst others, have likewise halted the possibility of executions for over 200 condemned men, all with the same justification.
They’re all in agreement, the death penalty is broken. Between the strong possibilities of botched executions, the lack of proof of its effectiveness, the risk of killing an innocent person, the difficulties of even obtaining the drugs necessary for the process, and the ridiculous expense of it all, many states are no longer seeing any advantages in keeping it around.
Yet, they are keeping it around. Why?
Every governor that has decided to place a moratorium on executions has the power to completely empty out the death rows of their state. But instead, they press the pause button, ostensibly to address the “serious concerns” to determine if there is a way to salvage the ultimate penalty that was voted in by their people. However, all the while, they are very well aware that it’s unsalvageable. Oregon’s governor said as much in her office’s statement when admitting that they had already “thoroughly researched” the issue, using death-knell words when referring to concerns that capital punishment is “unconstitutional” and “unworkable.”
As the most outspoken proponent of capital punishment in the state of Oregon, Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, stated in regards to his governor’s decision to extend the moratorium, “If she really believes the death penalty is so wrong, then she should have the guts to commute all of those sentences.” Perhaps that’s it, these governors simply lack the courage to bring about the end of something that has been on their law books for the last 40 years. Or perhaps it’s something else.
Capital punishment costs a fortune. In the state of California alone, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, more than $4 billion has been spent on it since it was reinstituted in 1978. When you consider that they have only executed 13 people in that amount of time, each execution essentially cost the state $385 million. That may be an extreme example, yet it’s still representative of the absurd costs of this ineffective punishment.
Very few states have released accurate figures to demonstrate the real costs to their taxpayers, but for those that have, or where independent studies have been conducted, the figures have always been alarming. For example, 15 years ago, the Palm Beach Post reported that Florida was spending $51 million a year more on death penalty offenses than it would cost to punish the same offenders with life-without-parole sentences. That meant that with the 44 executions carried out in the state, each person executed, on average, cost taxpayers upwards of $24 million.
According to an Urban Institute study prior to Maryland’s banning of the death penalty, in the 20 years researched Maryland had spent $186 million on capital punishment during a time when only five people were executed. That means that the death penalty cost the people of the state of Maryland $37.2 million per execution.
About a dozen of the 30 states that still have the death penalty on the books have not executed anyone in over a decade, and yet they are still billing the taxpayers to pay the tab of fighting appeals and housing men who, on paper at least, are condemned. Therefore, it’s a safe bet to assume that hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent this year unnecessarily on capital punishment. But in no states is this more glaringly obvious than the ones who have placed a “moratorium” on the death penalty.
Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington have all been under a moratorium since 2011. But while these are preventing executions from being carried out in these states, these are not moratoriums on the capital punishment scheme itself. This means that death sentences can be, and are still, meted out. What’s more, the hundreds of prisoners in these states who are already on death row are moving forward with their appeals unaffected by their governor’s action.
This means that for FIVE years these states have continued spending the hard-earned dollars of citizens on a system that has already been recognized by governors as a broken one. Every taxpayer in these states is being forced to deposit funds into a bank that is virtually guaranteed to go belly-up in the very near future. What’s worse, these governors know this to be the case.
“America is on the verge of a sea change,” stated Governor Brown’s administration, “by both legislation and more profoundly through court decisions. The past few years have already seen a major shift in the landscape of capital punishment law, and Governor Brown expects more changes on the horizon.”
In the five years that these moratoriums have been in place, five other states have abolished capital punishment altogether. Their governors knew what the moratorium-happy governors know now–the death penalty is ineffective, unnecessarily costly, and a burden to its people. So why prolong the inevitable?
Death row inmates who are fighting their convictions, which are essentially all of them, do not merely have one citizen-paid attorney; they typically have an entire team of people fighting their cause. Between two capital defense attorneys, on average, several investigators, and numerous hired experts on their side, not to mention the staff on the other side of the table, from each state attorney general’s office, who are charged with ensuring the sentence stands, sizable daily withdrawals are coming from the taxpayer-supplied state coffers. When you further tally new capital cases that must be fought and all associated court costs, which are typically four times that of non-capital-charged murder cases, the costs of the death penalty, even though it’s under a moratorium, are still astronomical.
The death penalty is an economy of its own in the states that continue to hold onto it, but is a system that brings no benefits to those who are footing the bill. As passionate as a portion of Americans are about the concept of capital punishment in their state, it is not being used for a reason. It does not work. It’s time to let the death penalty go.
Governors who decide that a moratorium is a good middle ground between satisfying the original wish of their people and the logical conclusion that the death penalty does not work are making a terrible choice. They are single-handedly reaching into the pockets of their constituents and robbing them to pay those who prosecute and defend criminals who are never going to step one foot inside of a death chamber
Worse, by continuing to let the death penalty process continue when it is acknowledged that the system is so broken that executive action must be taken, these governors are essentially letting the car be driven without oil. Every part of the process will be adversely impacted by the parts that are broken, costing even more money in re-do repairs in the unlikely event that the death penalty is miraculously fixed.
Enacting a pause on capital punishment that still allows the flawed death penalty process to continue is either an act of cowardice or stupidity. Either way, it’s unnecessarily costing the people of these states obscene amounts of resources that would be far better spent on enhancing the lives of their citizens. Instead, Governor Brown and the others are throwing much-needed state resources down the money pit of a so-called moratorium.