Missouri may soon know the cost of the death penalty
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Missouri may soon know the cost of the death penalty

Date: February 29, 2012
By: Josie Butler
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SB786

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri may soon know how much the death penalty actually costs in comparison to a life sentence without the chance of parole.

A bill presented to the Senate Governmental Accountability committee would require the state auditor to audit the costs of administering the death penalty in the state of Missouri. The audit would compare both the direct and indirect costs borne by both the county and state government in prosecution and defense of all homicide cases on or after January 1, 1977 where the death penalty was sought and where it was not. An equal number of cases will be chosen by a random sampling method.

The bill was presented one day before the Missouri Bar is scheduled to release a report of a long term review of the death penalty.

The American Bar Association has been conducting the assessments in a number of states. The assessment team in each state must determine whether the state is in compliance with ABA benchmarks on the fair and accurate administration of the death penalty. The teams must look at various laws, rules, procedures, standards and guidelines relating to the administration of the death penalty.

The ABA said the reports would provide a starting point for states to conduct their own investigations into their death penalty policy.

Sen. Joseph Keaveny, D-St. Louis City, the bill sponsor, said that a Kansas study looked at seven cases that had a death penalty sentencing and seven cases with a life sentence without parole. Keaveny said the Kansas study showed that the seven death penalty cases cost the state $10.6 million from beginning to end and the life without parole sentences cost the state $6.3 million.

A number of states such as North Carolina, California, New Jersey and New Mexico have conducted similar studies, but this type of study has never been done in Missouri.

Paul Litton, associate professor of law at the University of Missouri, shared the findings of a 2008 study conducted in Maryland. The study looked at the relative costs over a 21 year period, of three sets of cases: cases in which the prosecutor did seek the death penalty but was unsuccessful, cases where the prosecutor did seek the death penalty and was successful and cases where the death penalty was not sought. In cases where the death penalty was not sought, the cost to the state was $1.1 million. In cases in which the death sentence was handed down and imposed the cost to the state was $3 million. 

The incarceration costs for individuals on death row cost more. Litton said most of the costs come from the trials and the preparation for the trials. He said the pretrial takes longer because the jurors must be unbiased and follow the law.

"The sentencing trial has really turned into a trial on the defendants entire life," Litton said. "I do think it is important to have an understanding of how much the death penalty costs."

An American Civil Liberties legislative consultant, Jeremy Lafaver, said he believes Missouri should have the study conducted by a state auditor. He said that if interest groups conduct the studies, it would call into question the end result of the study. 

"If we have a nonbiased, independent state based audit of the costs, I think that helps to inform the debate, help inform our discussion and help us create the best public policy for Missouri as it comes to crime deterrence and the state's fiscal health," Lafaver said.

Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, said he believes the governments most important role is to be a good fiscal steward of the people's money. If the state is spending more money in putting someone to death than in keeping them incarcerated for the rest of their life without parole then he said he believes the state is not being a good fiscal steward of the peoples resources. 

Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, later said the bill is not persuasive to him. Cox is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

"I believe that having the death penalty is an appropriate response to certain types of actions," Cox said.

State Public Defender Dan Bralick said that the cases in post-conviction proceedings, including direct appeals and collateral review, are so carefully scrutinized that the slightest error in the cases will result in a reversal in a new trial and these costs can be repeated. 

"I am personally familiar with one death prosecution," Bralick said. "It has had to be retried due to errors and irregularities five times since 1992." 

Bralick said he estimates the cost to the state to be well over $3 million, just for the public defender.

Rita Linhardt, a registered lobbyist for the Missouri Catholic Conference, supported the bill and said she believes that taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going. She said this is not a matter of whether the death penalty is right or wrong, it is a matter of fiscal responsibility. 

Keaveny called the bill a work in progress and he said he plans to change the wording of the bill to require a data collection by a state auditor as opposed to an audit. The data would be collected from a random selection of the 67 executions since 1976. A representative from the auditors office said that he is concerned that there would be too much data, and suggested that the audit focus on the current 34 pending death penalty cases in Missouri. 

The committee did not taken any action on the bill. The Missouri Bar report is scheduled to be released on Thursday.