Topeka The state’s need to cut spending to prevent a budget deficit is a good argument for abolishing the death penalty to save money, Senate leaders said Monday.
But they also said that they’re not sure how the argument will sell.
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans hearings Thursday and Friday on a bill by Sen. Carolyn McGinn to abolish the death penalty starting July 1. Chairman Tim Owens, an Overland Park Republican, said the committee will vote on the bill either Friday or next week.
The bill wouldn’t affect the 10 inmates already under sentence of death, nor would it apply to Justin Thurber, convicted in Cowley County of killing Jodi Sanderholm, a 19-year-old community college student, in 2007. A jury recommended death, and Thurber is to be sentenced March 20.
When McGinn introduced the bill, she said death sentences are too expensive and unnecessary because a person can be sentenced to life in prison without parole. She said lawmakers need to save money to keep the budget balanced for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Legislation to repeal the death penalty is pending in at least seven other states: Colorado, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Washington, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Thirty-six states have the death penalty.
Senate President Steve Morris said Monday it’s hard to gauge sentiment because only three of the 40 senators were in the chamber when the death penalty law was enacted. Another three senators were in the House at the time.
Morris, who voted for the 1994 bill, said a 2003 state audit showed that death penalty cases averaged $1.2 million, compared with $740,000 for non-death penalty murder cases.
“If it does have a chance of being repealed, it would because of economics,” the Hugoton Republican said. “That would be the best chance of getting it repealed.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, who voted against the 1994 legislation, agreed that costs could become an issue but didn’t know whether it would be a convincing argument for enough lawmakers.
“This is a question of cost comes as one of the factors about whether we need the death penalty,” said the Topeka Democrat. “It’s a proven fact that it costs more to put people to death than to keep them in prison for the long term.”
Aside from costs, opponents also say there’s the chance of innocent person being executed. The center says some 130 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973.
But supporters note that most Kansans favor the death penalty. Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, an Independence Republican, said if legislators vote according to their constituents’ wishes, the death penalty probably will remain.
Attorney General Steve Six said the vast majority of murders don’t meet the criteria for the death penalty, which he said is reserved for the “worst, most heinous and cruel murders.”
Kansas has not executed anyone since June 22, 1965, when James Latham and George York, serial killers in their 20s, went to the gallows.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972. After the court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, it took Kansas until 1994 to enact a new law.