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Death Penalty is a Fast-Track to State Bankruptcy

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November 12, 2008

Two events last week made compelling arguments against the death penalty. Last Friday, Brian Nichols, perpetrator of the notorious “Courthouse Shootings” in Georgia, was found guilty of 54 counts, including murder, kidnapping, assault and carjacking. Today, the sentencing phase of the trial commences. The New York Times reports: “Legal experts say the defense faces little chance of avoiding the death sentence for Mr. Nichols.”

A death sentence can only mean one thing: Mr. Nichols will be sent to death row, where his incarceration will cost far more than if he is sentenced to life imprisonment, and the appeals process to spare Mr. Nichols’ life will kick into high gear. Last February, The New Yorker‘s Jeffrey Toobin authored an excellent article telling of the enormous expense of Nichols’ legal odyssey through Georgia’s court system. In short, the complexity of Nichols’ case alone bankrupted the Georgia Public Defenders office. This problem isn’t limited to Georgia — in fact, that state was on the road to rehabilitating its public defender system until it decided to seek Nichols’ execution. The right to counsel is a basic constitutional guarantee, but at its current pace, many state public defender offices are being forced to sacrifice quality representation for quantity, adding to defense lawyers’ already crushing caseloads.

Appropriately, the Sunday Times reported:

Public defenders’ offices in at least seven states are refusing to take on new cases or have sued to limit them, citing overwhelming workloads that they say undermine the constitutional right to counsel for the poor.

Public defenders are notoriously overworked, and their turnover is high and their pay low. But now, in the most open revolt by public defenders in memory, many of the government-appointed lawyers say that state budget cuts and rising caseloads have pushed them to the breaking point.

We propose a simple, cost-effective solution to this crisis in our criminal justice system that could save states many millions in taxpayer dollars: abolish the death penalty. It’s been shown, time and again, that the capital punishment gobbles up millions of dollars in public defender resources as well as the resources of other components of our criminal justice system. Life sentences instead of execution could mean more money for better schools, after-school programs, and other services that get to the root of the problem of crime in our communities. Let’s spend more time and resources keeping people educated and alive rather than spending it trying to execute them.