Thursday, October 18, 2007


Study Committee Gets the Facts

I spent several hours on Monday and Tuesday of this week at Legislative Plaza as the study committee on the administration of the death penalty began its year long examination of Tennessee's death penalty. Even in just two days of meetings, so many issues were raised with the current system that this distinguished group will have a very difficult time finishing their work in a year.

For example, the Comptroller's office testified that there is little accurate data in Tennessee to understand the real cost of the death penalty to tax payers of this state. The Comptroller attempted a study a few years ago but readily admitted to the committee that much of the data that they needed to perform a thorough and reliable study was simply unavailable. In other words, Tennessee has no idea of the amount of money that the death penalty is costing.

Even more problematic, the lack of adequate defense counsel for those charged with a capital crime was a recurrent theme. The legislators seemed shocked to learn that almost no one on Tennessee's death row could afford an attorney at the time of their trial. Furthermore, the lack of resources, extreme caseloads, and lack of compensation for defense attorneys are all very serious issues in determining whether or not someone gets an adequate defense in court.

Other issues which were raised: the lack of a true proportionality review in Tennessee, the lack of specific guidelines for District Attorneys to use in determining when to seek the death penalty, the economic, racial, and geographic disparities in who receives the death penalty, and of course, the issues with the state's lethal injection protocol.

All of this information was revealed in only two days of testimony. Of course, we at TCASK have been highlighting all of these problems for years and are so grateful that this legislative committee is taking the time to truly listen and consider the reasons why this public policy is so broken. We will continue to follow this work of this committee closely as the members reconvene in the next couple of weeks. I am very impressed with the committee and the seriousness with which they are taking this work. Hopefully, much more will be revealed as the they dig deeper into the death penalty allowing the public to get a better picture of just how broken the system is. Read more here.
Comments :
The Death Penalty can take a toll on society because of its divisiveness since many people believe it is administered in a socio-economic discriminatory, arbitrary and racist way.

But the question of exactly how much the death penalty costs in a financial sense to the community is itself a legitimate inquiry especially compared to the costs of alternative sentences. I think having the death penalty represents a substantial additional cost to the taxpayer compared to a system in which a sentence of life without parole is the most severe punishment based on studies I've read through the Death Penalty Information Center, Amnesty International and other sources.

Some counties in the U.S. have nearly gone bankrupt because of the costs associated with one single death penalty case. Others have had to fore go critical resources, such as ambulances, libraries, buying road equipment, paying salaries for the fire and sheriff’s department, better lighting in crime-prone areas, gun control implementation, more police on the streets or the development of job programs.

In my Criminal Justice class at MTSU I was told that in Texas, a death penalty case costs an average of about $2.3 million. That is THREE times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest level of security for over forty years.

Death penalty cases are clearly more expensive at every stage of the judicial process than similar non-death cases. Everything that is needed for an ordinary trial is needed for a death penalty case, only more so:

-more pre-trial motions will be filed and answered
-more pre-trial time will be needed to prepare: cases usually take a year to come to trial
-more experts will be hired
-twice as many attorneys will be hired for the defense, and a comparable team for the prosecution
-a long process of jury selection (voire dire) is required
-jurors are likely to be sequestered
-two separate trials will be conducted: guilt and punishment
-And lastly, a series of costly appeals, while the inmate is housed in a high-security unit of death row.

These individual expenses result in a substantial net cost to the taxpayer to maintain a death penalty system.I am so thankful that these issues are being looked at from an economic point of view in out state.
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