As Maine lawmakers confront less-than-stellar economic growth prospects, a higher education system in turmoil, a broken county corrections system and Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to overhaul Maine’s tax structure, some valuable attention will be diverted to a debate that should be long settled.
A Democratic senator is proposing that Maine reinstate the death penalty, but only as a sentencing option when the defendant is found guilty of one, narrowly defined crime: the on-camera death of a child in a pornographic film. “From my way of thinking, this is probably the most egregious offense that could happen,” said state Sen. Bill Diamond. “I’m not a death penalty proponent myself in most cases, but this is one of those cases where I think we need to be saying more than we have been saying.”
Maine hasn’t allowed executions since 1887; it’s one of 18 states that doesn’t allow criminals to be sentenced to death. In the past decade, that list of states where the death penalty isn’t an option has grown by six.
The reasons against the death penalty only start with morality. There is no reason the state should join the immoral depths of killers for whom the harshest sentences — life in prison — are already reserved.
There’s also the prohibitive cost to consider.
Diamond said he’s looking into whether Maine can avoid some of the cost by outsourcing its executions to states already set up to carry them out. That would still leave the full cost of trial, subsequent appeals and, presumably, incarceration for Maine to absorb. Trying a case in which prosecutors seek the death penalty takes longer and costs more. According to a Kansas Judicial Council analysis of 34 capital murder cases between 2004 and 2011, the cases in which prosecutors sought the death penalty averaged 40.13 days in court as opposed to 16.79 days for non-death penalty capital murder cases. The trial and appeal in the death penalty cases cost Kansas $396,000 each, compared with $99,000 for non-death penalty murder cases.
When all the costs are calculated — including police, court and incarceration costs — an analysis of 147 aggravated, first-degree murder cases since 1997 in Washington state found that a case in which the death penalty was sought cost taxpayers, on average, $3.07 million vs. $2.01 million for a non-death penalty case. The only cost category that was lower in death penalty cases was post-conviction incarceration: $1.13 million per case vs. $1.53 million in non-death penalty cases.
But even when it comes to the incarceration of a death penalty inmate, the annual costs are higher: $49,380 per year in Kansas compared with $24,690 for prisoners in general population. In California, having the death penalty costs taxpayers $137 million annually, according to a 2008 report by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. A system with lifetime incarceration as the maximum penalty would, by comparison, cost the state $11.5 million, the commission estimated. A 2011 study found that California taxpayers had shelled out $4 billion since 1978 to sustain their state’s death penalty.
For such a high price tag, one might expect the death penalty to work effectively as a deterrent of future murders. But if the death penalty were such an effective deterrent, how does one explain why the Northeast is both the region that has carried out the fewest executions since 1976 (four) and the region with the lowest murder rate (3.5 per 100,000 people in 2013). Or why death penalty states, on average, have more murders (4.4 per 100,000 people in 2013) than non-death penalty states (3.4 per 100,000 population)?
Diamond’s bill would apply the death penalty to one narrowly defined type of murder that is, indeed, heinous, yet exceedingly rare. The bill could well raise awareness of and generate valuable discussion about pornographic snuff films, which would be a positive outcome. But the bill is not an effective — much less cost-effective — way to stop them.