Ending capital punishment would be costly

For all practical purposes, Nevada doesn’t have capital punishment. In the 36 years since Nevada reinstated the death penalty for its worst killers, just 12 inmates have been executed, none since 2006. Nevada’s only execution chamber was shut down when the state closed the Nevada State Prison. The Legislature won’t fund a new chamber, even though 83 men are on death row.

As the Review-Journal’s Sean Whaley reported Monday, death row inmates are more likely to die of natural causes.

Capital punishment is on its death bed, of course, because defense lawyers and anti-death penalty groups file endless appeals on behalf of death row inmates. That these same lawyers and groups argue the cost of litigating death penalty cases justifies the abolishment of capital punishment defies credulity. They’re driving those huge costs to the public.

Now the state will examine Nevada’s death penalty costs, thanks to the passage of Assembly Bill 444. An analysis of the cost of prosecuting and adjudicating death penalty cases compared with noncapital cases will be completed by the legislative auditor and presented to the 2015 Legislature.

There’s no doubt that capital cases are more expensive than noncapital cases. But such examinations of the costs of death penalty cases cannot address the financial benefit of capital punishment: The money saved when killers plead guilty and accept life sentences to avoid death row. As nationally syndicated columnist Debra Saunders noted last year, it’s doubtful Jared Lee Loughner would have pleaded guilty to the Tucson mass shooting that killed six and wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords if capital punishment were off the table. If the death penalty goes away, fewer killers will strike plea bargains, creating new criminal justice costs.

“In such cases, there is quick resolution and certainty of outcome, and victims’ families need not worry about an offender’s getting off, because the defendant has no grounds for appeals,” Ms. Saunders wrote. “All of the outcomes that the anti-death penalty lobby extols — cheaper, faster and more certain — exist only because of the death penalty.”

That said, capital punishment has been sought far too often in Nevada and around the country. Defense attorneys vigorously appeal capital punishment cases for good reason: Dozens of wrongly convicted death row inmates have been exonerated in recent decades because of shoddy evidence, flawed eyewitness accounts and other factors. If prosecutors sought the death penalty only for the worst of the worst, where evidence leaves absolutely no doubt about the killer’s guilt, capital punishment costs would steeply decline.

That’s already taking place in Clark County, where District Attorney Steve Wolfson has sharply reduced death penalty prosecutions. The district attorney’s office averaged about 20 such cases per year from 2007 to 2011 under Mr. Wolfson’s predecessor, David Roger. Under Mr. Wolfson, the office has pursued the death penalty in just 13 cases in his nearly 18 months in office. The worst of the worst, as it should be.

When lawmakers learn of the costs of death penalty cases, they’ll have to consider the potential future cost of not having capital punishment.

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