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Daily American poll: Somerset County residents favor death penalty

April 13, 2019 GMT

A majority of Somerset County residents polled believe that it costs less than $1 million to carry out the death penalty, but they are at least a $199 million off from the actual cost.

In an anonymous poll conducted by the Daily American, 62 out of 81 residents said the death penalty is the punishment they’d prefer for people convicted of murder. Fifty-seven residents also said they thought it costs the state less than $1 million to put convicted felons to death, from arrest to execution.

“Murderers need to be gone! Why should we pay for them to have a life that is better than ours! TV, weight room, etc. Go back to a cell with no luxury! They did the crime so sitting in a cell without luxury is how it should be!” one poll commenter stated.

Since 1973 the state has executed three prisoners. In February 2015 Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on the death penalty, calling the system of capital punishment “error prone, expensive and anything but infallible.”

A 2018 a state study by the Pennsylvania General Assembly Joint State Government Commission found that each death row inmate, from trial to execution, cost an average of about $272 million since 1978. In the 2016-17 fiscal year it cost $15,010 more per year to house an inmate in a capital case unit than in the general population.

“If difference in costs for capital case unit inmates compared to general population inmates persists, Department of Corrections can expect to spend an extra $39,378,735 more to incarcerate condemnees, who are unlikely to be executed,” the report states.

State officials said the differential amount spent per inmate on death row would total $262,524.90 per inmate during a period of close to 18 years. The differential is attributed to security, food delivery, medical costs, utilities, the execution complex and transport.

{div class=”page” title=”Page 66”}{div class=”layoutArea”}{div class=”column”}“Multiplying that amount by the 150 inmates in the capital case unit would equal an aggregate difference of $39,378,735 during the same period of 17.49 years,” the report states.{/div}{/div}{/div}

Robert Dunham, executive director for the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, said most people don’t know about the extra costs of death penalty cases and assume it is cheaper than a system of life without parole.

“Nationwide, the estimate was that death penalties cost states with capital punishment an average of $23 million dollars per year than alternative sentences,” he said.

Dunham said the reason for the added costs is not because of the execution, but because of the legal cost of a trial and appeals included in the death penalty.

“Capital trial will not move forward often for several years, so the county picks up the additional security costs of extended pretrial incarceration,” he said. “Everyone in Pennsylvania is in what is called administrative custody, which is solitary confinement . . . which requires much more intensive use of corrections personnel.”

In the committee’s report, almost 150 prisoners facing the death penalty incarcerated are challenging their convictions. The reason only three condemnees have been executed is that most prisoners have had their sentences vacated or have died in prison while waiting to be executed.

“(Those executed) have all been mentally ill volunteers, folks who gave up their appellate rights,” Dunham said. “So there’s a lot that goes into it.”

In a 2015 Public Policy Polling poll, more than 70% of 632 state residents thought the death penalty was cheaper than life in prison without parole. In a spring Penn State University poll 58% of 600 adults polled favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

In the Daily American’s poll, 69 people of those polled believed executing someone convicted of murder was the most cost-effective sentence.

“I think if you take a life you forfeit your right to live among us,” one respondent said.

Dunham, who was named the first director of the original Pennsylvania Capital Case Resource Center, said counties cannot provide adequate resources for defendants in capital cases, resulting in many of those cases being overturned.

“The single most likely reason a death penalty case in Pennsylvania is overturned is for ineffective assistance of counsel, largely for failures to investigate and present available evidence,” he said. “Over the past 30 years, Pennsylvania has handled death penalty cases on the cheap.”

See the Joint State Government Commission report, along with recommendations for lawmakers, at www.dailyamerican.com.