If the state stopped trying to execute killers, it would free up $11 million a year, according to a study by a Duke University economist published this month.
There is little return on the dollars spent on seeking the death penalty, says Philip Cook, an economist at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy. Of the 1,034 people charged with murder in North Carolina in 2005 and 2006, prosecutors initially sought the death penalty against about a quarter of them. Only 11, though, were sentenced to death for their crimes.
"The idea that the state could spend so much money on someone they think is completely undeserving is very interesting," Cook said. "I have to believe that there are some people that would find this cost issue irritating."
Cook's study was published this month in American Law and Economics Review. Cook's last study on the cost of the death penalty in North Carolina was published in 1993. In that study, he estimated an annual savings of $4 million if the death penalty were not an option.
Cook's findings will be presented to lawmakers, and opponents of the death penalty will likely use them to argue that it isn't cost-effective.
Death penalty debates typically focus on questions of morality and justice. Proponents argue that ending a life for taking a life is a punishment rooted in ancient religious philosophy. They also say that the mere threat of being executed is a strong deterrent to committing murder and cite studies suggesting that the murder rate has escalated in recent years, since the death penalty has been halted in North Carolina by a series of court challenges.
Cook argues that the rarity of death sentences undermines the deterrent factor. By his math, the odds of a killer getting the death penalty are less than 1 percent.
Rep. Paul Stam, a Wake County Republican, said criminals don't calculate odds and aren't swayed by them.
"Criminals pay more attention to TV and newspaper headlines than to statistics," said Stam, a proponent of the death penalty. "Maybe that is why many of them get caught."
Here and across the country, the death penalty is on the decline. No one has been lethally injected in North Carolina since August 2006, and the 163 inmates now on death row face an uncertain end.
Cook's $11 million figure is a net savings. He assumed everyone currently on death row would be imprisoned for all of their living days, and also factored the estimated costs of appealing convictions of life in prison. Cook did not, however, include savings by prosecutors being spared additional preparation and court time of a capital trial.
It's unclear what bearing, if any, a cost analysis of the punishment will have on its future.
"Whenever it comes to reducing or changing punishments, there's a lot of politics and public opinion involved," said Rep. Deborah Ross, a Wake County Democrat. "It's never, ever a dollar-and-cents issue."
At least two states, New Jersey and New Mexico, have abolished the death penalty in recent years, citing cost as a primary reason. Maryland, too, has considered eliminating the death penalty; officials there have significantly limited the number of murders that can be prosecuted capitally in hopes of reducing costs.
Capital trials cost five times more than first-degree murder trials in which the death penalty is not pursued. A trial averages $116,400 in costs for the defendant, Cook found, compared with $18,600 for a non-capital murder trial. Trials also hijack a prosecutor's office for weeks, a cost that's hard to estimate because it involves salaries for people who handle other matters besides capital murder trials. The average capital trial lasts nearly three weeks, compared to a week for murder trials without the death penalty.
"It's not an ideal use of resources to have so much time devoted to such a small number of cases if your goal is to reduce crime rates," Cook said.
Part of the expense is tied to protections that state and federal law offer those facing execution. Each defendant put on death row is guaranteed at least six layers of appeals to courts as high as the U.S. Supreme Court. Over 2005 and 2006, taxpayers paid at least $8.1 million toward these appeals.
To spend less or offer less scrutiny would be foolhardy, because juries sometimes put innocent people on death row, legal experts argue. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, seven people have been taken off North Carolina's death row since 1973 after courts found evidence of their innocence.
"We know how that story goes," said Tye Hunter, director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a nonprofit focused on defending those facing the death penalty. "That is just a recipe for disaster. We can't have innocent people put to death."
Prosecutors often argue that the option of pursuing the death penalty is a bargaining chip that allows them to secure a plea to the lesser punishment of life in prison without setting foot in a courtroom. Cook found, however, that it was cheaper to try a case in which prosecutors never sought the death penalty than to negotiate a capital case and avoid going to trial. That is due in part to a North Carolina law requiring defendants facing the death penalty to have at least two attorneys.
A savings of $11 million may not seem significant in the scheme of what the state spends each year. But, as revenues have plummeted and the need for social services escalated, legislators are scrutinizing every dollar.
"As lawmakers, we're not supposed to worry about costs when deciding what is the right thing to do," said Rep. Jimmy Love Sr., a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "But, really, you can't help but think about robbing Peter to pay Paul in these times. This is no different."
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