The debate over whether Connecticut should have a death penalty is usually a morality discussion, but this week the Office of Fiscal Analysis threw a price tag on it.
A fiscal note attached to this year’s bill to prospectively abolish the death penalty attempts to calculate how much the state spends on litigation, incarceration, and the actual execution associated with the sentence. It also tries to identify how much money the state would save in its absence.
The agency estimates that it costs somewhere around $5 million a year to keep the death penalty on the books. Most of that amount, $3.8 million, is spent by the Public Defenders Commission that defends and appeals death penalty convictions. The office spends around $660,000 annually on expert witnesses.
The remainder of the $5 million comes from the Department of Criminal Justice’s efforts to prosecute capital punishment cases. The department spends around $1.2 million a year, with $150,000 of that for expert witnesses.
By weighing the cost of incarcerating someone for life against the total cost of the incarceration and execution of the last person the state executed, OFA also estimates the Department of Correction would save about $455,000 per inmate in the absence of a capital punishment.
However, the bill is written prospectively to only impact future cases, so those savings would only be achieved after the 11 men currently on death row either exhaust their appeals, settle their cases, die, or are executed.
If the bill is adopted, OFA anticipates about $850,000 savings in the next two fiscal years because of reduced litigation costs for future cases.
The bill’s proponent Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said the fiscal aspect of the debate is often overlooked because it’s easy for death penalty supporters to say it’s callous to have a numbers discussion on such an emotional issue. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered, he said.
“Whenever we argue anything including the death penalty, recognizing how emotional it is, the full panoply of issues should be discussed,” he said. “Listen if we’re going to have a death penalty that we don’t actually use and we’re spending hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, that’s something that people should talk about. It’s important.”
Sen. John Kissel, R- Enfield, disagreed, saying it is wrong to look at the death penalty as a fiscal matter.
“You could look at our entire criminal justice system and start trying to say, ‘Well if we do away with this crime, we’ll save this much money. If we do away with that crime, we’ll save that much money.’ To me that’s an unfair analysis,” he said.
Protecting the public is one of government’s most important duties and having a death penalty on the books helps accomplish that, he said.
“Who’s to put a value on the one life it might save?” he asked.