"And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"
-- Micah 6:8

"The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict."
-- American Bar Association Standard 3-1.2(c)

"There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
--Pope Benedict XVI, June 2004

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Cost of Justice

It's gratifying to see that the Prohibitionists have developed a new-found concern over the use of tax-dollars. They worry that

The capital murder prosecution of Michael Addison in New Hampshire will cost the state at least $978,000 in its first stage. Attorney General Kelly A. Ayotte estimates that there are about eight lawyers working on Addison’s case from her office. The state has been allocated $420,000 for the four new staff members along with other office costs, to prosecute Addison. The $420,000 does not include the costs of salaried state prosecutors who are helping to prepare the case and litigating pre-trial issues. The New Hampshire Public Defender Office, which represents Addison, is expected to have spent about $530,000 by the end of its fiscal year in June.
In brief, Addison is a convicted burglar and armed robber who gunned down a Manchester police officer who was investigating a domestic violence complaint. After "allegedly" killing the officer, Addison fled the state and led police on a lengthy manhunt, ultimately being arrested in Massachussetts. The victim, officer Michael Briggs (whose name apparently doesn't merit a mention over at at Capital Defense Weekly or at the DPIC site, the source of the CDW entry), was a former Marine and had, ironically, rendered first aid to Addison in an earlier, unrelated shooting incident. He leaves behind a wife and two sons.

Of course, even if it costs a million dollars to execute a cop-killer, the people of New Hampshire might consider it money well-spent.

But the DPIC and the abolition folks are, unsurprisingly, not telling the whole story. First, they don't tell us how much of these sums would be spent in any event prosecuting this crime. Even if the DP were off the table, this would be a high-profile case where the state would be pursuing a life sentence (LWOP). This is not a garden variety manslaughter case.

Second, even if the costs of this prosecution approach $2 million (an extremely high estimation), the ultimate costs of a LWOP sentence could easily approach that $2 million figure. Incarceration routinely cost $25-30,ooo/year. Maximum security costs are higher than that.

Bureau of Justice Statistics studies indicate that on average, a convicted felon serves about 24 years in prison. The BJS acknowledges that in cases of LWOP, this would be an underestimate. If we assume for illustration purposes, then, that an average 25 year-old LWOP inmate serves 40 years in prison, the incarceration costs are:

$30,000/year x 40 years = $1,200,000.

A very conservative estimate, since max security costs can reach upwards of $75,000/year per inmate. Add to this 1.2 million cost the extra litigation costs associated with a LWOP case, and you begin to approach the $2 million mark.

Moreover, New Hampshire is in a singular situation of being a very small state having to expend money on a one-time basis to handle one case. In most states, there is no need to hire new lawyers to handle DP cases.

I've always scratched my head when I hear abolitionist argue against the DP because it supposedly "costs too much." Would they be happier if appeals were truncated; rules of evidence were not stretched in capital cases as they are so that sentencing hearings become veritable re-creations of the defendant's entire life story? If expert testimony funding was restricted like it is most other cases? All these things make a capital case more expensive to prosecute. If the abolitionists care so much about the "burden on the taxpayer," will they advocate for streamlining DP cases?

No? Thought not.

Of course the prohibitionists care not about spending money; heck, certain of them have, vulture-like, literally made a living off of the DP. I suspect they very much like the lots of money being spent on these cases, which has provided a comfortable living for them. No, what they're interested in is trying to convince people that spending money on the DP is the only kind of state spending (besides perhaps defense spending) that is out of control and needs to be stopped. It takes little imagination to forsee that when the DP is abolished as being too expensive, these same people will still be with us, telling us that LWOP is too expensive, too cruel and unusual, and the rest of it.

In any event, the response is simple: if the DP is "too expensive," make DP cases less expensive by more carefully controlling the kinds of trial level and appellate shennanigans that constitute the bulk of the cost. One example of a cost-effective improvement in my own state of Virginia is the creation of regional public Capital Defenders who specialize in capital litigation and aid the primary defense counsel at much less cost than appointing expensive out of town litigators. Other savings can be found.

Regardless, however, of the cost, there will always be certain crimes that society judges are worth spending the modest extra money in order to see that justice is done.

The murder of Officer Briggs is, for the people of New Hampshire, exhibit #1.

1 comment:

dudleysharp said...

Cost Comparisons: Death Penalty Cases Vs Equivalent Life Sentence Cases
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below

In comparing the cost of death penalty cases to other sentences, the studies are woefully incomplete.
Generally, such studies have one or more of the following problems.
1) All studies exclude the cost of geriatric care, recently found to be $69,000/inmate/yr. A significant omission from life sentence costs.
2) All studies exclude the cost savings of the death penalty, which is the ONLY sentence which allows for a plea bargain to a maximum life sentence. Such plea bargains accrue as a cost benefit to the death penalty, such benefit being the cost of trials and appeals for every such plea bargain. The cost savings would be for trial and appeals, an amount estimated to be at least $1 million per case. Depending upon jurisdiction, this may result in a zero net cost for the death penalty, depending on the number of plea bargains Vs the number of death penalty trials, or an actual net cost benefit.
3) FCC economist Dr. Paul Zimmerman finds that executions result in a huge cost benefit to society. "Specifically, it is estimated that each state execution deters somewhere between 3 and 25 murders per year (14 being the average). Assuming that the value of human life is approximately $5 million {i.e. the average of the range estimates provided by Viscussi (1993)}, our estimates imply that society avoids losing approximately $70 million per year on average at the current rate of execution all else equal." The study used state level data from 1978 to 1997 for all 50 states (excluding Washington D.C.). (1)
That is a cost benefit of $70 million per execution.  15 additional recent studies, inclusive of their defenses,  support the deterrent effect. 
No cost study has included such calculations.
Although we find it inappropriate to put a dollar value on life, evidently this is not uncommon for economists, insurers, etc.
We know that living murderers are infinitely more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers. There is no doubt that executions do save innocent lives. What value do you put on the lives saved? Certainly not less than $5 million.
4) a) Some studies compare the cost of a death penalty case, including pre trial, trial, appeals and incarceration, to only the cost of incarceration for 40 years, excluding all trial costs and appeals, for a life sentence. The much cited Texas "study" does this.  Hardly an apples to apples cost comparison.
       b) The pure deception in some cost "studies" is overt. It has been claimed that it costs $3.2 million/execution in Florida. That "study" decided to add the cost of the entire death penalty system in Florida ($57 million), which included all of the death penalty cases and dividing that number by only the number of executions (18). One could just have easily stated that the cost of the estimated 200 death row inmates was $285,000 per case.
5) There is no reason for death penalty appeals to take longer than 7 years. All death penalty appeals, direct and writ, should travel through the process concurrently, thereby giving every appellate issue 7 years of consideration through both state and federal courts. There is no need for endless repetition and delay. It currently takes about 12 years for appeals. A 5 year reduction in time, enforcement of the concurrent path for appeals and the end of repetitive appeals would save $200,000 per death penalty case.
Judges are the most serious roadblock in timely resolution. They can and do hold up cases, inexcusably, for long periods of time.  Texas, which leads the nation in executions, by far, takes over 10 years, on average, to execute murderers. However, the state and federal courts, for that jurisdiction,  handle many cases. Texas has the second lowest rate of the courts overturning death penalty cases. Could every other jurisdiction process appeals in 7-10 years. Of course, if the justices would allow it.
6) If a state is considering an execution moratorium, such costs should be included. All studies exclude the cost of a moratorium. A moratorium will add approximately $20,000/yr/inmate for a state's expenditures, for those inmates not executed during that period.
7) The main reason sentences are given is because jurors find that it is the most just punishment available. No state, concerned with justice, will base a decision on cost alone. If they did, all cases would be plea bargained and every crime would have a probation option.
Many more errors and omissions can be identified. The bottom line is that there are currently no studies which give us a true picture of the cost of death penalty cases Vs a maximum life sentence for equivalent cases.
There may be a cost benefit for the death penalty.
At the very least, with just this partial list of errors and omissions found in current death penalty studies, no one can use the cost issue as a reason for saving a jurisdiction money or for an execution moratorium.
1). "State Executions, Deterrence and the Incidence of Murder", Paul R. Zimmerman (zimmy@att.net), March 3. 2003, Social Science Research Network, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/delivery.cfm/SSRN_ID354680_code021216500.pdf?abstractid=354680
copyright 2003-2007 Dudley Sharp
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail  sharpjfa@aol.com,  713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas
Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.
Pro death penalty sites 



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