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Tuesday, May 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: State cost of pursuing death penalty too high

Whenever the death penalty is debated, the question of cost inevitably arises: “Why are we spending so much money on death row inmates?”

Pursuing the death penalty costs much more than a life sentence without the possibility of parole, yet, in both cases, the killers die while in custody.

So if cost alone is the major concern, then you should support HB 1739, co-sponsored by two Republicans: Reps. Maureen Walsh of Walla Walla and Chad Magendanz of Issaquah; and two Democrats, Reps. Reuven Carlyle of Seattle and Tina Orwall of Des Moines. A companion bill – SB 5639 – has been introduced in the Senate and is co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, and Sens. Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Jamie Pederson, both Seattle Democrats.

The bills would abolish capital punishment and call for those convicted of aggravated murder in the first degree to be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Washington would be the 19th state to take this step.

The debate was reignited when Gov. Jay Inslee declared a moratorium on executions last year. But it’s not as if a slew of imminent lethal injections or hangings was forestalled. Voters reimposed the death penalty in 1975. It took 18 years for the first execution to occur. Since then, four more have followed. That’s an average of one every eight years.

The last person from Spokane County to be convicted and executed was Woodrow Clark, on Feb. 5, 1946. Among those not charged with capital murder is serial killer Robert Yates Jr.

Gary Ridgway, the Green River serial killer, also avoided capital punishment.

Polls show a majority of Americans still favor the death penalty, but the arbitrary nature of the punishment, racial imbalances and exonerations due to DNA testing years after conviction are chipping away at support. And then there’s the cost.

Look at the short list of people executed, and it’s clear that only wealthier jurisdictions have the money to press through all the litigation. Even there, public officials are seeking relief. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes sent a letter to lawmakers citing the cost of the last three cases: $15 million and counting, according to seattlepi.com.

He framed the issue succinctly: “We can debate endlessly whether a defendant deserves to die. The question is whether that is valid reason to spend $15 million in public funds.”

At $5 million per case (and counting) and no guarantee that an execution will ever occur, the question answers itself. Plus, studies show the death penalty is an ineffective deterrent. What’s needed is swift and certain punishment: a life sentence.

As for a lifetime of room and board in prison, a recent Seattle University study showed forgoing the death penalty would cut government costs by about $1 million per case. The automatic appeals are lengthy and costly, and there’s nothing the state can do about that.

In this era of “smart justice,” ending the death penalty is simply wise.

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