Could Abolishing the Death Penalty Help States Save Money?


In 2003, Seattle resident Robert Kerr was abducted from his apartment and found dead 30 miles from his home, with his bank account emptied and without clothes or identification. At the end of 2010, the state of Washington has yet to arrest or convict anyone for his death.

While Kerr's killers have never been found, the state will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in the coming year on the death penalty for people already behind bars -- a situation that has reformers, and Kerr's family, clamoring for change.

Kerr's case is one of thousands of unsolved murders, and it's the reason his sister, Judy Kerr, supports her state, California, in abolishing the death penalty and reallocating the millions of dollars it spends on death row inmates each year to solving cold cases.

With so many states facing deficits, legislation on the death penalty has started to address the cost of the policy, while justification for it has traditionally focused on whether it's right or wrong.

"I thought the crime would be solved quickly, and there would be justice for me," Kerr, a registered nurse from San Francisco, said. "The state needs to be allocating its money toward different things."

California has a $25 billion deficit and almost 700 inmates on death row. According to a 2008 report issued by the California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice, maintaining the criminal justice system costs $137 million per year, but the cost would drop to $11.5 million if it weren't for the death penalty. A 2010 study from the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union found that California would be forced to spend $1 billion on the death penalty in the next five years if the state does not replace capital punishment with permanent imprisonment.

California is not the only state where cost has become an argument for abolishing the death penalty.

Last week a commission report recommended to the New Hampshire legislature that the state not expand its death penalty, citing its higher costs as one of the reasons, and the same week a bill to abolish the death penalty in Illinois passed in the state's House Judiciary Committee.

Illinois Still Needs One More Vote

Illinois Democratic State Rep. Karen Yarbrough, a sponsor of the bill, said she had been working on the issue of abolishing the death penalty for four years, and this is the closest the vote has ever come in the legislature for this measure. Yarbrough said she needs one more vote to call the bill to the Illinois House floor for a vote in January.

"Illinois has spent over $100 million in 10 years and hasn't put anyone to death," Yarbrough said. "It's time to put this barbaric practice to rest."

Yarbrough's bill would take the money saved from the death penalty and put it toward solving cold cases in the state, and training law enforcement officials.

"We have a $13 billion shortfall in the budget," she said. "We want to be pennywise and be able to put this money into something substantial."

Darryl Stallworth served as a prosecutor for 15 years in Alameda County, Calif., during which he tried a capital punishment case. He now opposes the death penalty.

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