Recent Legislative Activity

PARADE MAGAZINE: The Cost of Capital Punishment

A recent article in Parade magazine looked at the cost of the death penalty, especially in light of the budgetary crises confronting most states in today's economy. New Mexico and New Jersey recently abolished the death penalty, and costs played a significant role in their decisions. New Mexico State Rep. Gail Chasey (D., Albuquerque) noted, “We can put that money toward enhancing law enforcement, public works, you name it." In New Jersey a commission found that using the alternative sentence of life without parole would save the state $1.3 million per inmate in incarceration costs alone because a death row facility requires more personnel to operate. Finally, a recent study in North Carolina found that the state could save at least $11 million a year by repealing the death penalty.

In 2009, 52 prisoners (out of the total 3,279 on death row across the country) were executed. “People tend to think, ‘Oh, you get the death penalty, then there’s an execution,’” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. “But more often than not, the death penalty turns out to be a very expensive form of life imprisonment."  Read full text below.

The Next Phase in California's Lethal Injection Protocol Review

California recently released its revised lethal injection guidelines, following a June public hearing on the protocol.  The 25-page document indicates small revisions, outlining such items as to when the curtains remain open in the execution chamber to definitions of the term “chaplain” and “lethal injection room.”  Natasha Minsker, the Death Penalty Policy Director of the ACLU of Northern California called the revisions superficial.  Minsker added, "In the current state of the state, we are still wasting money tinkering with the death penalty system."  Minsker suggested that by turning death sentences to life in prison without parole, the state could save $1 billion over five years. 

Terry Thorton, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson, explained that the public review process of the protocol still has several more steps before actually being adopted. "If during the next comment period it requires more changes, we have to put it out again," she said.  The public has until January 20, 2010 to comment on the changes, and the state has until May 1, 2010, to complete its public review process. For links to the revisions and full text of the protocol, see below.

New Hampshire Commission Studies Cost of the Death Penalty

On December 4, the New Hampshire Commission to Study the Death Penalty held a hearing in Concord to examine the cost of the death penaty in the state. The twenty-two member Commission, led by retired Judge Walter Murphy, has been charged with considering several issues, including whether the death penalty is a deterrent, if it is arbitrarily applied, and if it covers the appropriate crimes.  The Commission is considering alternatives to capital punishment and the related question of whether the state spends more on a death penalty case than on a first-degree homicide case resulting in a life sentence.  The state spent more than $5.3 million on two capital cases last year, and has not had an execution since 1939.  Deputy Attorney General Orville Fitch told the committee that his office spent $1.6 million while prosecuting Michael Addison, who was ultimately sentenced to death. The state spent an additional $1.2 million for the public defender who represented Addison, a large sum when compared to the $70,000-$100,000 it costs to defend a typical first-degree case. Fitch also testified that his office spent $2.4 million prosecuting another defendant in a murder-for-hire case, in which a life sentence was returned.

NEW VOICES: Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Ready to Close Door on New Mexico's Death Penalty

In March of this year, New Mexico repealed the death penalty, becoming the fifteenth state to abolish the practice. The law, however, is not retroactive, and does not affect two inmates currently on death row as well as any defendant sentenced to death for crimes committed before the law was to take effect in July 2009. One of the legislators who voted to end the death penalty, partly because of its high costs, was Republican gubernatorial candidate Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, who also voted to repeal the death penalty in 2007.  Arnold-Jones recently said she “would consider commuting sentences of the two men on death row and any others who may join them.” She continued, “[T]he biggest reason that I couldn't sustain the death penalty any longer is it's not working. It is fraught with so many issues, so much cost and it bogs down our system. It's just not working.“  

Gov. Perdue Signs North Carolina's Racial Justice Act--NAACP Commends Passage

Governor Beverly Purdue of North Carolina signed the state's Racial Justice Act into law on August 11, concluding a long period of legislative action surrounding this death penalty statute.  Gov. Purdue said in a news release, "I have always been a supporter of death penalty, but I have always believed it must be carried out fairly.  The Racial Justice Act ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state’s harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals – the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice.”  The law allows pre-trial defendants and death-row inmates to challenge racial bias in the death penalty system through the use of statistical studies.  Prosecutors would then have the opportunity to rebut the claim that the statistical disparities indicate racial bias.  If proven, a judge could overturn the death sentence or prevent prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.

The state conference of the NAACP issued a statement, commending the sponsors of the bill and the governor.  They cautioned, "This law does not assure racial justice, but it can help bring it about. The law is one of the most powerful legitimate weapons we can use to rid our state of the criminal justice practice of racial bias.  It does not address the roots of the problem – stereotypes, fear and even racism – but it is a start."

Racial Justice Act passes in North Carolina

On August 5, the North Carolina senate passed a bill allowing pre-trial defendants and death-row inmates to challenge the death penalty process through the use of statistical studies. The Racial Justice Act allows a defendant facing a capital trial or an inmate sentenced to death to use evidence showing a pattern of racial disparity as a way of challenging racial injustice in the death penalty.  Prosecutors would then have the opportunity to rebut the claim that the statistical disparities indicate racial bias.  If proven, a judge could overturn the death sentence or prevent prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.  Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham) (pictured), the chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said,  “[The law] is critically needed to correct any type of conduct that might be impermissible when it comes to the imposition of the death penalty.”  The House had passed the Racial Justice Act earlier.  Governor Beverly Purdue is expected to sign the bill into law.  

Murders Drop in New Jersey Following Moratorium and Abolition of Death Penalty

The number of murders in New Jersey declined 24% in the first six months of 2009 compared to the same period last year.  Murders declined in 2008, the year after the state abolished the death penalty, marking the first time since 1999 that New Jersey has seen a drop in murders for two consecutive years.  Murders dropped 11% in 2007, the year following a state-imposed moratorium on executions, which was instituted in 2006. Governor Jon Corzine, who signed the bill abolishing the death penalty, was encouraged by the statistics and attributed the decline to aggressive crime-fighting measures: "The release of these crime report statistics shows that we are winning important battles in the war against violent criminals and gangs," said the Governor. "Thanks to the efforts of Attorney General Milgram and the New Jersey law enforcement community, county task forces, police departments, and partner agencies, more than  4,200 offenders have been arrested for crimes including murder, assault with a firearm, armed robbery, and gun and drug trafficking. We know more work remains.  Even one act of violence against a New Jersey citizen is one too many."

RACE: Research Experts Say Racial Bias Still Exists in Death Penalty

Renowned researchers David Baldus, Professor of Law at the University of Iowa, and George Woodworth, a fellow of the American Statistical Association, recently wrote about the ongoing problem of racial disparities in capital cases.  Professors Baldus and Woodworth were responsible for the acclaimed study on race and the death penalty in Georgia that was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 in McCleskey v. Kemp.  In response to claims that North Carolina does not need to pass the Racial Justice Act, the researchers pointed to "several studies, including one done at UNC-Chapel Hill several years ago, that found that a defendant's odds of getting the death penalty in North Carolina increased by 3.5 times if the victim is white."  They wrote further: "Our published review of all studies completed up to 2003 reaches the same conclusion. No one who has read the research literature could claim that white-victim cases more frequently result in death sentences because they are more heinous and aggravated than black-victim cases. Studies that provide the strongest evidence that those who murder whites are substantially more likely to receive death sentences than those who murder blacks use well-accepted statistical tools to filter out the effects of these various non-racial factors."  Their entire op-ed may be read below: