At a time when the governor has called for a special session to deal with a devastating budget deficit, Gov. Susana Martinez is asking to bring back the death penalty. Yet, the death penalty is expensive, does nothing to deter crime, takes resources away from communities, and, on occasion is used against innocent people.
The cost of one death penalty case is about $1.5 million dollars more than a life sentence prosecution. This price tag is created by constitutional protections and mandates that are required in cases where the state wants to take the life of a citizen. Even with all that money spent, innocent people end up on death row, but more on that below.
What level of community safety do we get for those millions of dollars? Police chiefs agree: very little. Police chiefs from around the country have been surveyed to learn what tools they believe are critical for public safety. Overwhelmingly, these law enforcement leaders have ranked the death penalty last on their list.
Why is the death penalty last? Because the death penalty is ineffective as a crime deterrent. The death penalty does not make anyone “think twice” – people who murder are not thinking straight anyway. Death penalty states, like Texas, do not have lower crime rates than states that have abolished the death penalty.
New Mexico’s murder rate decreased in the year immediately following the abolishment of the state death penalty, even though there was widespread publicity that New Mexico would no longer kill people as punishment.
If spending taxpayer money on the death penalty doesn’t work, what could we use the money on that does work?
Experts say law enforcement needs funding for more officers, improved technology, comprehensive training and sophisticated investigatory equipment.
Last year the Doña Ana County sheriff said he was severely understaffed and needed millions of taxpayer dollars to provide required services to the county. Just a few death penalty cases would undermine that budget. Just one death penalty case would pay the annual salaries of about 50 Doña Ana County sheriff’s deputies. And, of course, law enforcement is only one area that, if it received full funding, might help decrease crime. What about education and child services? New Mexico is still 49th in child well-being. We are 50th in education and child poverty.
There is no room in our state budget to take money that could be spent for children’s education and services and spend it to fund ineffective and expensive death-penalty prosecutions. That is especially true this year when the entire state is facing drastic budget cuts, and all state agencies will likely have to tighten their belts.
And if you think the money is worth it because people prosecuted under the death penalty have all committed terrible crimes, think again. We have all heard news stories about innocent people being incarcerated for terrible crimes they did not commit. Some innocent people have sat on death row for years, some innocent people took plea deals to avoid the death penalty, and some were likely executed.
Death penalty prosecutions are used against the innocent. As of October 13, 2015, there have been 156 exonerations of innocent men and women on death row. If each prosecution cost on average $1.5 million, then $234 million taxpayer dollars were used to prosecute the death penalty against the innocent.
That cost is unacceptable. That waste is unacceptable. And potentially executing an innocent person is unacceptable.
Except for shameless political purposes, it is inconceivable politicians would put forth legislation to reinstate the death penalty. It is an ineffective waste of scarce resources and hard-earned tax dollars during a time of extreme budget shortfalls. I hope our lawmakers use this upcoming session to focus on what can really help New Mexico law enforcement and our state.