By John W. Whitehead
The Commonwealth of Virginia is in the throes of a massive budgetary crisis, with a current shortfall of just under $3 billion. As a result, a reduction in services, job losses and funding cuts for secondary and higher education are expected. Lawmakers, officials and state employees also face the difficult task of paring down their budgets in the face of dwindling financial support from the Commonwealth. As Delegate Terry G. Kilgore stated, "Everyone needs to be concentrating on the budget this year. The budget transcends everything."
Yet in the midst of this financial crisis, the Virginia legislature is expanding the death penalty, which will only further burden Virginia taxpayers. The various proposals to expand the death penalty include adding fire marshals, assistant fire marshals, auxiliary police officers, and uncompensated auxiliary police officers to the capital murder statute. One bill would also redefine the "triggerman rule," which says that only a person who pulls the trigger in a capital murder case is eligible for the death penalty, so that accomplices could also be eligible for the death penalty.
Unfortunately, as other states have learned to their detriment, expansive use of the death penalty only increases the financial burden upon state coffers--and taxpayers. In fact, studies in Maryland, North Carolina and Florida show that, due to the lengthy nature of death penalty trials and appeals, states incur costs far exceeding those of non-death penalty cases.
Most recently, a Maryland commission charged with reviewing the state's capital punishment system concluded that "death penalty cases are more costly than non-death penalty cases" and recommended that the state discontinue executions in favor of the life-without-parole sentencing option. This echoes a New Jersey commission's 2007 finding concerning the prohibitive costs of capital punishment. For example, a Duke University study determined that North Carolina incurred $2.16 million per execution over the cost of condemning a convicted murderer to life in prison. (It bears noting that over the last 32 years, Virginia has executed 102 individuals. Assuming a comparable expense rate for the Commonwealth's executions, the cost of Virginia's state-sanctioned deaths comes in at $220 million total, or about $7 million per year.)
In addition to the costs of the actual executions, one must also factor in the expenses associated with prosecuting capital punishment cases, which can take many years until the various avenues of appeal are exhausted. California counties, for example, spend an additional $1.1 million in prosecuting death penalty cases over standard murder trials, with the state committing an additional $117 million a year. The vast majority of these expenses are derived from providing public defenders for the accused during the long trial and appeal process, as well as attorneys for the prosecution and court costs.
The Palm Beach Post found that the cost of death penalty cases in Florida far outstrips the price for standard-fare murder prosecutions. Indeed, the death penalty forces the state government to disburse $51 million more a year than it would if all capital punishment prosecutions instead sought a sentence of life without parole. As Elliott Metcalfe, president of the Florida Public Defenders Association, observed, "It is much cheaper to put these people in prison and leave them there until they die. Simple as that."
It's time to re-examine our priorities. For most Americans, that means keeping a roof over their heads, food on the table and ensuring that their taxpayer dollars are being used where they can do the most good. Thus, at a time when Virginia lawmakers are being forced to eliminate thousands of jobs, slash agencies' spending by 15 percent and trim $800 million from K-12 education and Medicaid programs for the indigent, elderly and disabled, the last thing our representatives need to be doing is adding to the tax burden by expanding the scope of the death penalty.
It's time to declare a temporary moratorium on the death penalty while a review commission can be formed to investigate the condition of the Commonwealth's death penalty system, both financially and legally. These actions will save the Commonwealth millions of dollars in the short term and also allow Virginians to make informed, responsible decisions regarding the death penalty in the long term.