By Grace Reinke and Jan Moller
The definition of insanity, Albert Einstein famously observed, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. This quote comes to mind when considering the sorry state of the death penalty in Louisiana.
A new study of Louisiana’s death penalty made headlines last week – for good reason. The analysis, by researchers at the University of North Carolina, found that 127 of the 155 death penalty cases resolved in Louisiana from 1976 through 2015 ended with a reversal of the sentence – an 82 percent reversal rate that is nearly 10 points above the national average. Since 2000, seven people on death row have been exonerated while only two have been executed.
The death penalty in Louisiana also has wide racial discrepancies. Black male defendants are 30 times more likely to face the death penalty if his victim is a white woman, as opposed to a black man.
It’s no surprise that the authors say capital punishment in Louisiana is nothing less than “dysfunctional.”
Louisiana’s death penalty is not just ineffective, it’s also quite costly. Death penalty cases cost a lot more than other murder cases to prosecute and defend, largely because of the strict scrutiny required by the U.S. Supreme Court to justify the sentence, and the requirement that anyone facing the death penalty have at least two lawyers. The costs don’t stop after the trial, as post-conviction appeals typically take several years.
The Louisiana Public Defender Board currently spends about one-third of its $33 million annual budget on capital cases – spending that has drawn the ire of District Attorneys and their lobbyists who say the money would be better spent on local public defender’s offices. The state’s public defenders, of course, are in the midst of an unprecedented budget crisis that has drawn national and international attention as offices restrict services and poor people accused of crimes languish while awaiting their day in court.
Public defenders are far from alone in their plight. Public colleges and universities, safety-net hospitals and scholarship-seeking college students are among those facing cuts under the budget proposal for next year that’s currently pending in the House.
Given all this, there may be no better time than the present for Louisiana’s legislators to re-think their support for the death penalty. Suspending death penalty prosecutions for at least two years makes sense. This would give the 15-member Capital Punishment Fiscal Impact Study Commission (full disclosure: LBP Director Jan Moller is a member) time to report on the true cost of having a death penalty, and whether the cost is worth it given the state’s other financial obligations.
The short-term benefits of such a move are obvious, as it would allow the Louisiana Public Defender Board to redirect some resources to local public defenders who are now starved for cash.
Alternatively, legislators should consider legislation offered by Shreveport Rep. Cedric Glover (HB 1090) and Sen. Wesley Bishop of New Orleans (SB 450) that creates a commission to evaluate whether funding is available before a death penalty prosecution can proceed.
Suspending the death penalty is not only sound fiscal policy – it is also good politics. A recent poll found that Louisianans prefer life sentences over the death penalty at a rate of 2 to 1. Even the state’s own District Attorneys agree that state spending on the death penalty is exorbitant.
A broader public debate is certainly needed on whether the death penalty is a moral policy and effective deterrent to crime. But at a time when essential services are threatened by state budget cuts, the high cost and poor return on investment of the death penalties suggest it’s time for a pause.