Fresh Ideas: Nevada’s death penalty not worth the cost

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Four years ago, the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 444 which directed the Legislative Auditor to conduct a study of the fiscal costs of the death penalty in Nevada. The primary findings of the 2014 report are the basis for AB237, cosponsored by Assemblyman Ohrenschall and Sen. Segerblom, to abolish the death penalty.

The statistics speak for themselves. In Nevada, a death penalty conviction costs about $532,000 more than other murder cases where the death penalty isn’t sought. Since 1977 when the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty, Nevada has sentenced 153 persons to death. Of those, 12 have been executed; 43 inmates had their sentence and/or conviction reduced. Statewide, there are now 80 persons on death row. Imposing the death penalty is more costly to the state than life without parole because of the mandatory appeals process and need for specialized death penalty attorneys.

In 2016, Nevada spent more than $800,000 to build an ADA compatible death chamber at the prison in Ely, replacing the antiquated execution facility at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City. Cognitive dissonance aside, there’s an additional challenge. States are finding it hard to obtain lethal injection drugs from pharmaceutical companies.

How difficult? This month, Arkansas has scheduled eight executions between April 17 and 27. The condemned are being hustled to their death because the state’s supply of its lethal drug expires at the end of April (no joke). The eight death row inmates have sued Arkansas to block the four double executions.

The Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty cites major reasons to oppose the death penalty. It’s irreversible. Consider more than 150 death row inmates since 1973 have been found innocent and released. Like the justice system itself, it discriminates against the poor and is racially biased. Almost 40 percent of Nevada’s death row inmates are African-American, while only 9 percent of Nevada’s population is African American. The 1990 U.S. General Accounting Office study found a “pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing and imposition of the death penalty.”

Assemblyman Ohrenschall cited a 2012 National Academy of Sciences study which found the death penalty isn’t a deterrent to crime. Closer to home, the Assemblyman referenced the Fairness Project’s 2016 study Too Broken to Fix: An In-depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Counties, which examined 10 years of court opinions and records from eight “outlier counties,” including Nevada’s Clark County. Between 2006-15, the study found approximately one in seven cases in the outlier counties involved a finding of prosecutorial misconduct but Clark County had prosecutorial misconduct in 47 percent of cases. More than 80 capital cases are pending in Clark County today which increases costs by at least $15 million more than without the death penalty.

In a 2015 article in the Washington Post, University of North Carolina scholars Frank Baumgartner and Anna Dietrich concluded, “Ultimately the American system of capital punishment arguably creates unnecessary suffering for both those defendants sentenced to death and the surviving family members of the victims of the crimes for which the defendants were convicted. A system that ensures prolonged court time, automatic appeals for the convicted inmate — most of whom are eventually successful — and only a small chance of actual execution is a system built on false promises for everyone ...” And by everyone, we should include not just the defendant and the victim’s family but the taxpayer too.

Nineteen states have no death penalty. The evidence shows the death penalty is costly, unfair, doesn’t deter crime and is racially biased. The Legislature should approve AB237 by a veto-proof margin and make Nevada the 20th state to abolish capital punishment.

Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. 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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