I tell you people time and again not to misunderestimate me. I am the national bellweather for things criminal justice related. A few weeks ago, I made the call for abolition of the death penalty in these harsh economic times. It seems that some of you in high places were listening: In the last week or so alone, Montana, New Mexico and Colorado have had at least one chamber of their Congress’ pass measures abolishing the death penalty, a TN commission is scheduled to release a report on the state of the death penalty soon and CT has a public hearing on an abolition bill scheduled for next Monday.
A common theme in all these bills, as highlighted by this NYT story, is the economy and the cost of maintaining the death penalty.
Mr. O’Malley [Governor of Maryland], a Democrat and a Roman Catholic who has cited religious opposition to the death penalty in the past, is now arguing that capital cases cost three times as much as homicide cases where the death penalty is not sought. “And we can’t afford that,” he said, “when there are better and cheaper ways to reduce crime.”
Lawmakers in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and New Hampshire have made the same argument in recent months as they push bills seeking to repeal the death penalty, and experts say such bills have a good chance of passing in Maryland, Montana and New Mexico.
Surprising as it may be, the prospects of an abolition bill passing in CT are not high (in my opinion). The legislature (or large chunks of it) seem convinced that whatever system we have in CT works. That we sentence only the most deserving people to death and that there are no innocent people on our death row.
But this time around, it isn’t about religion or vengeance or anything else. It is, and rightly so, about cost. From the submitted testimony to the Appropriations committee, we learn how much the public defender’s office spends yearly on death penalty cases: $5.9 million on “special public defenders” [contract attorneys] alone (that figure does not seem to include costs of death penalty cases in which the defendant is represented by a salaried public defender).
But as the NYT article correctly points out, abolition of the death penalty isn’t the only area where cost-savings can be made. One obvious are is the rate of incarceration and terms of incarceration of defendants. CT may appear to be a ‘blue, liberal’ state, but when it comes to criminal justice, it is anything but. A majority of inmates in prisons are serving sentences for violation of parole and probation. Our legislators’ calls of outrage at every news-media reported crime have led to stiffer and stiffer sentences being imposed on all defendants. The jails in CT are overflowing and will be for a long time to come. That is where we need to have cost cutting. Parole needs to let people out earlier than they do, they need to deport those that are not citizens and have orders of deportation and they have to stop locking people up for every minor transgression and “technical” violation of parole.
Last year, in an effort to cut costs, probation and parole agencies in Arizona, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Vermont reduced or dropped prison time for thousands of offenders who violated conditions of their release. In some states, probation and parole violators account for up to two-thirds of prison admissions each year; typical violations are failing drug tests or missing meetings with parole officers.
In the end, I suspect nothing will happen here in CT.