Capital Punishment – Tightening the Noose on Washington’s Budget

Friday, November 19, 2010

In September Governor Chris Gregoire, warning that Washington’s finances were “bouncing along the bottom,” by executive order decreed 6.3% across-the-board budget cuts for all state agencies. Just days before the Governor’s announcement the state spent almost $98,000 to execute Cal Brown, who had spent 17 years on death row for a crime committed in 1991. That sum was only the tip of the iceberg, however. As a recent report by the Washington State Bar Association notes, the specter of a death sentence regularly adds a premium of half a million dollars or more of legal and judicial costs per case.

Capital trials cost at least twice as much as other trials. State and federal appeals (typically at five different appellate court levels, and often multiple times) can last for years, leaving the families of victims in limbo and draining already-strapped criminal justice budgets. In Okanogan County, for example, prosecutors sought the death penalty for a man of killing an Omak police officer. The prosecutor ultimately withdrew the death penalty notice based on mental health evaluations of the defendant -- but not before the case had racked up a bill of almost $1 million, or 9% of the county’s entire budget, forcing the county to cut public health nurses, freeze employee pay, and defer purchases of police vehicles.

Amidst the most draconian cuts in government services in generations, Washington continues to pour money into the costly, ineffective machinery of capital punishment. As one state lawmaker noted: “We are punishing the innocent with the costs of punishing the guilty. How many home care workers will we lay off to kill Cal Brown? How many kids will go without welfare?”

Few Washington defendants sentenced to death are ever executed. From 1977-1995, for instance, only 5% of those sentenced to death were ultimately executed. But the executioner’s shadow -- just the possibility of a death sentence -- inflates costs in many cases even when prosecutors never seek the death penalty. That’s because the filing of a charge for which the death penalty could apply triggers a number of special procedures which immediately lead to extra costs. Courts are required to appoint not one, but at least two attorneys, for instance, and costly mandatory investigations of mitigating factors begin immediately.

While there are many reasons to oppose the death penalty, a growing number of citizens and legislators view the case in favor of abolition as a simple analysis of costs and benefits. As it becomes painfully clear that states can’t afford the death penalty, it is no wonder that public support is steadily eroding and more voters favor alternative penalties such as life without parole. Many states are considering elimination of the death penalty; last year New Mexico became the 15th state abolish the death penalty, and 17 other states, including Washington, are considering eliminating this ineffective and costly punishment.