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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Smart Bombs: Death penalty kills budgets

Perhaps one good outcome of tight budgets will be the death of the death penalty. Fifteen states have rescinded capital punishment since the U.S. Supreme Court revived it in a 1976 ruling, with the latest being New Mexico. The Connecticut Legislature passed a similar bill last year, but the governor vetoed it.

Washington was one of 11 states where legislatures considered abolishing the death penalty last year but didn’t. However, as lawmakers in Olympia get ready to kick people out of vital safety-net programs to close a huge budget gap, they ought to revisit the issue.

The Death Penalty Information Center’s annual report spotlights the sheer waste in spending. Though death sentences declined by 60 percent and executions have also dropped over the past decade, it still takes a lot of money to maintain a capital punishment system.

California, which is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, is spending $137 million a year on the death penalty and hasn’t executed anyone in 3 1/2 years, but it is pondering whether to spend $400 million to build a new death row. Florida spends $24 million per execution. Maryland has executed five people in 20 years at a cost of $186 million.

Before abolishing the death penalty, New Jersey spent $250 million over 25 years and didn’t execute a single person, which prompted West Orange, N.J., Police Chief James Abbott to say, “Give a law enforcement professional like me that $250 million, and I’ll show you how to reduce crime. The death penalty isn’t anywhere on my list.”

For most chiefs, it isn’t a priority. When asked which items are the biggest impediments to efficient law enforcement, most police chiefs mention lack of resources, alcohol and drug abuse, a dearth of programs for the mentally ill, crowded courts, too many guns and gangs, according to the center’s report.

Even Texas, once the hotbed of executions, has chilled the pace ever since its legislature passed a law allowing jurors to consider life in prison without the possibility of parole, which is a far cheaper option.

If the death penalty recently became available, it’s hard to fathom any state jumping at the chance. As is, politics and emotions keep it alive.

Since 1976, there’s been an average of 19,000 murders per year in the United States, yet 41 of 50 states have either executed nobody or averaged less than one per year. Only Texas has averaged more than three executions per year.

Washington state has executed a grand total of four people in that time frame. Idaho has done it once.

It’s time to put this punishment out of its misery.

Rest in pieces. Though the article hasn’t garnered much attention, the New York Times recently reported that the American Law Institute is walking away from the death penalty. That might sound like a snoozer of a story, but the institute, which is made up of 4,000 judges, lawyers and law professors, had been responsible for the intellectual heavy lifting that got the death penalty off the ground and kept it operational after it had been sidelined by the U.S. Supreme Court.

As the Times reported, “A study commissioned by the institute said that decades of experience had proved that the system could not reconcile the twin goals of individualized decisions about who should be executed and systemic fairness. It added that capital punishment was plagued by racial disparities; was enormously expensive even as many defense lawyers were underpaid and some were incompetent; risked executing innocent people; and was undermined by the politics that come with judicial elections.”

That’s the conclusion of longtime supporters. So what does this mean for capital punishment? It’s a dead man walking.

Smart Bombs is written by Associate Editor Gary Crooks and appears Wednesdays and Sundays on the Opinion page. Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or at (509) 459-5026.
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