Cook: Abolishing a system that kills more than prisoners

Cook: Abolishing a system that kills more than prisoners

March 28th, 2011 by David Cook in News

Document: Tennessee's Death Penalty: Costs & Consequences

If Tennessee abolished the death penalty, it could save millions of dollars a year.

"I think it would be a wonderful idea," said Mary Ann Green, assistant public defender in Chattanooga.

"You could save the money and spend it on areas that would be so much more effective and greater a deterrent, like drug and alcohol treatment, early parenting skills, mental health services and so many other things," she said.

Earlier this month, Gov. Bill Haslam proposed a budget that seeks to cut more than $133 million from services, many of which help our most vulnerable citizens.

The mentally ill and suicidal will lose nearly $1.6 million in services.

Programs that aid children, students and prekindergartners will be cut by more than $5 million.

The under- and uninsured will lose more than $40 million in TennCare funding.

Balanced budgets are vital. Overspending is destructive. Yet to balance the budget on the backs of the least of these without considering removing one cent from a death penalty system no longer practiced by two-thirds of all nations on earth is not only questionable, it is unethical.

"It outrages me that the death penalty is a nondebatable issue as compared to feeding children or foster care for needy children," said David Raybin, a Nashville attorney who, while working in the state attorney general's office in the 1970s, wrote Tennessee's current death penalty statute.

Document: Commentary On Comptroller's Report

"The death penalty is an expensive luxury," he said. "It makes people feel better to have it. People believe so strongly it deters crime, which it doesn't."

According to Amnesty International, 18 countries carried out executions in 2009, with the vast majority occurring in five nations: China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Within the United States, a trend toward abolition continues to gain ground, as only 34 states currently main-

tain death rows. Many states - most recently Illinois - have realized the imperfections and failures of the death penalty system.

Since 1973, more than 130 people have been exonerated from death row prisons across the country. Sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit, these U.S. citizens - found innocent after retrials, DNA evidence or more comprehensive legal defense - are walking testimonies to the grave inadequacies of our capital punishment system.

"I think [the abolition of the death penalty] will happen in my lifetime," said Green, "and I'm 66 years old."

Other states - such as Kansas, Florida, North Carolina and Texas - have found that the death penalty system is costing millions more than sentencing the worst of the worst criminals to life without parole.

In California, the L.A. Times reported that taxpayers are funding a death penalty system that costs $114 million per year more than life-without-parole sentencing only.

This superlong due process includes years of extra litigation, police involvement, expert testimony, judge and jury time and sentencing. Then comes life on death row, with security far greater - and costlier - than a prison maintaining only life-without-parole prisoners.

Then there's Tennessee's Office of Post-Conviction Defender, a state-funded program that assists and defends death row inmates after they've lost their initial appeals. Its staff - nearly 20 attorneys and assistants - has nearly doubled in the last six years, as has its budget, currently about $2 million.

"If the state of Tennessee had no one on death row and no capital trials, then it would save millions of dollars a year," wrote Duke University professor Philip Cook, responding to a 2004 study from the Tennessee Office of the Comptroller, which claimed that capital trials in Tennessee are substantially more expensive than noncapital ones.

Additionally, the comptroller's study showed that district attorneys across the state are not consistent in their pursuit of the death sentence, and that the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed nearly one-third of capital cases on appeal.

Currently 84 men and one woman sit on death row in Tennessee. The system that will one day execute them has been criticized as barbaric and inhumane.

So is a budget that can save lives but refuses to do so in order to kill others.

David Cook can be reached at