Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Show Me the Money

I don't know Jack D'Aurora of the Behal Law Group, never met him, never even heard of him before this morning.  (I've also never heard of the Behal Law Group, sorry guys.) But here's a snip about Jack from the firm's web site.
A partner with the Behal Law Group, Jack provides counsel in matters such as purchase agreements, commercial leases, partnerships and LLCs, and financing, and has litigated a variety of contract and real estate issues. Jack is also an occasional contributor to The Columbus Dispatch op-ed section and former naval flight officer with 1700 hours in the F-14 Tomcat.
OK, now we know why I don't know him.  We're both Ohio lawyers but we don't do the same sort of things and don't move in the same circles.  Still, it turns out that there's one circle we share.
We both think the death penalty is bad policy.
From Jack's op-ed in today's Columbus Dispatch.
The hidden cost of executing murderers reminds me of a commercial a few years back, where corporate executives are not allowed to leave a conference room until they devise a way to cut the company budget. After various ideas are tanked, one executive waives his hand over the binders and reams of paper that cover the table and asks, “How much does all this stuff cost?” The financial guy responds, “Time, people and material — it could be millions.” Everyone’s eyes open wide in astonishment.
Shouldn’t our state be equally concerned about time and money? Life sentences without parole would serve us much better, but we are fixated on a process that drains government resources. And to what advantage?
D'Aurora doesn't answer those questions, though it's clear that his answers would be that, "Yes, we should be concerned about time and money."  And "No advantage at all."
The first of those answers is explained by context.  He's speaking from the point of view of a fiscal conservative.  The second answer he doesn't even try to explain.  Why isn't the death penalty - finances aside - better policy than LWOP?  D'Aurora treats the fact that it's not as self-evident to everyone except those who rabidly favor executions.  But, of course, it's not self-evident.  That's why we spend so much effort explaining and arguing.
* * * * *
Some years ago, I was at a hearing of the Ohio Senate's Criminal Justice Committee testifying against a proposed bill which, among other things, would make possible a few additional death sentences by assuring that someone whose death sentence got reversed for a legal error could again be sentenced to die.  (That part of the bill was, specifically, intended to undo a decision of the Ohio Supreme Court from earlier in the year.)
At one point, and in response to some question or other, I mentioned that the death penalty was fiscally irresponsible.
Surely, I said, there are better ways to use our limited funds.  Ohio's economy isn't strong, and the death penalty is wasting money that could be better spent on real crime prevention, on education, on highways, on dozens of other things.
(That's a paraphrase.  There is no transcript.  It's close to 8 years now.  I don't know exactly what I said, but it was something like that.)
At that point, the chair of the committee looked up.  (Again, I'm paraphrasing.)
First, that's really not relevant.  We're not here debating the merits of the death penalty.  Besides, if the death penalty is the right thing to do, we should pay for it regardless.
He was, of course, correct.  Technically correct that is.  He was wrong in his passionate support for state murder, but he was right that (1) it wasn't the subject of that day's hearing, and (2) you do the right thing because it's the right thing.  If it's important enough, you find a way to pay for it.  If it's not that important, then it's not the right thing to do.
* * * * *
We're stuck dealing with the fiscal questions, of course.  As a practical matter, government resources are both huge and finite.  At some point choices have to be made.  Do we give tax write offs to people who help fund our Olympic swimmers? To those with home mortgages?  To venture capitalists?  Do we fund Medicare? National Parks? Indigent defense? Nuclear submarines?
The feds can (and do) live to a great extent on debt.  Most states are required to adopt balanced budgets.  Either way, at least occasionally - and although the politicians pretty much never tell you this - unpleasant choices sometimes have to be made.  
So money matters.  And if the death penalty costs more than LWOP (it does, and not just because of post-trial expenses; capital pre-trial and trial costs are far higher, too), maybe we need to think about whether it's worth the cost.
If we have it for deterrent purposes, are there more effective ways to spend the same money while reducing homicides?  (Answer, yes; details another day.) If it's because it's just right to kill some folks, well, is it so right that we should not use that money for some other purpose?
* * * * *
The chair of the committee and I do ultimately agree about the basic point:  The worst reason to oppose the death penalty is that it's fiscally irresponsible.
But that's only because there are better reasons.
If it's the money thing that will sway you, then let's talk about the cash.

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