Fresh Ideas: Death-penalty justice may not be worth cost

An eye for an eye may not be working anymore for Nevada. Whether you support or oppose the death penalty on moral, religious or punitive grounds, Nevada’s system for ultimate justice may not be worth the cost.

That’s the essence of Assembly Bill 444, being considered now at the Legislature. The bill directs the legislative auditor to conduct an audit of the fiscal costs of the death penalty in Nevada, and “the costs of prosecuting and adjudicating capital cases compared to noncapital cases.” The audit would consider costs borne by the state and by local governments “at each stage of the proceedings in capital murder cases, including, without limitation, pretrial costs, trial costs, appellate and post conviction costs and costs of incarceration.”

A similar bill passed both houses last session but was vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval, who found the measure lacked specificity. This version is aimed at addressing the governor’s concerns, according to Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, chairman of the Legislative Operations and Elections Committee.

Nevada’s death-penalty statistics alone are an indicator that something is amiss. Since 1977, when the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty, Nevada has sentenced 151 people to death. Of those, 12 have been executed. However, as of six months ago, 36.4 percent of those death sentences have been reversed. In other words, over one-third of Nevada death-penalty convictions do not hold up on appeal. Statewide, there are 83 people on death row. In addition, 70 death-penalty cases are pending in Clark County. Imposing the death penalty is more costly to the state than life without parole because of the appeals process and need for specialized death-penalty attorneys. The AB 444 audit will pencil out exactly how much the death penalty costs state and local taxpayers.

A related issue is whether the Legislature should appropriate more than $700,000 to build an execution chamber at the maximum-security prison in Ely. It would replace the death chamber at the now-closed Nevada State Prison. However, no prisoners are scheduled to be executed in the next two years.

As I listened to testimony on AB 444 last week, I wondered why each state needs its own execution chamber. We contract with other states to house prisoners. Why not do the same for executions?

I believe that the ultimate punishment is life in prison with no hope of parole, regardless of the expense. With the cost of death-penalty cases exceeding the expense of lifetime incarceration, it’s a dollars-and-cents issue, too. Consider the 36 percent error ratio and that since 1973, nationwide, 138 death row prisoners have been released because they were innocent. The fiscal audit called for by AB 444 is a judicious step toward the ultimate goal of eliminating the death penalty for Nevada.

Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City and a part-time resident of Baker. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.


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