Sentencing someone to death for a crime is an extremely serious matter. It shouldn’t be easy to either issue that sentence or carry it out.
Many people have moral concerns about capital punishment, but there also are concerns about how great a drain those cases are on the state treasury. Legislation introduced last week in the Kansas House raises legitimate questions about whether it makes sense to maintain capital punishment in Kansas or to replace it with sentences of life without parole.
Kansas is one of 33 states with a capital punishment law. Since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1994, Kansas has spent millions of dollars prosecuting death penalty cases and fighting appeals in those cases. During that time, 13 men have been sentenced to death in capital murder cases. Three of those men had their sentences vacated. The cases of the other 10 are at some stage of appeal. None of the sentences has resulted in the lethal injection provided for in Kansas law. In fact, no criminal has been executed in Kansas since 1965.
The oldest capital punishment case still pending is that of Gary Kleypas, who was convicted in Crawford County and received a death sentence on March 11, 1998, almost exactly 15 years ago.
The 2013 Legislator Briefing Book prepared by the Kansas Legislative Research Department estimates that cases in which the death penalty is sought may cost the state about 70 percent more than similar cases that don’t seek that penalty. In addition to the costs to local courts and law enforcement, the Kansas Board of Indigents’ Defense maintains a death penalty defense unit with four public defenders who specialize in capital punishment issues and a current annual budget of $1.63 million.
The briefing book cites a 2003 audit of 22 first-degree murder cases that found that the median cost for cases in which the death penalty was imposed was about $1.2 million, compared with about $700,000 for cases in which it was not.
Some people think that money could be spent in better ways. A key provision of the legislation introduced last week is to take the money the state could save by eliminating the death penalty and use it to help the families of homicide victims.
A poignant column published in the Wichita Eagle last month proposes yet another use for the money that would be saved. The column’s author, Neely Goen, is the daughter of a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper who was killed in 1978. Her mother was pregnant at the time and Neely was born after his death.
In the column, Goen disagrees with those who think the capital punishment law is a significant deterrent to crime and notes that five states have repealed their death penalty laws in the last five years. She also contends that such laws simply cause more trauma for families by dragging them through prolonged trials and appeals. That money would be better spent, she said, providing services for those families and “equipping people like my father who are on the front lines, or toward other programs that actually reduce crime.”
Is the capital punishment law a good use of Kansas tax dollars? The arguments to the contrary by legislators and the trooper’s daughter deserve serious consideration.