The safe bet on the Louisiana legislative session that begins Monday is that by the June 8 adjournment, the budget still will be in shambles.
Handicappers may instead want to look at a dark horse: Louisiana becoming the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty.
A convergence of different philosophies — moral critics, ethical opponents and now fiscal conservatives — could turn abolition from “you’ve got to be kidding” to a possibility.
“There is a real chance this can become reality in this session,” said state Sen. Dan Claitor, one of three former law enforcement officers promoting two nearly identical bills in the House and Senate. The measures would remove the option of death sentences for murders committed after Aug. 1, meaning those convicted would be punished with life in prison.
Two former law enforcement officials filed legislation to do away with the death penalty in Louisiana.
Claitor says his motivation is more about religious faith. Pope Francis and his predecessors called capital punishment an “offence to the inviolability of life.” But the Baton Rouge Republican also recognizes the fiscal issues of executions that, with the exception of a single volunteer in 2010, haven’t happened in 15 years, and likely won’t be used again in the foreseeable future.
“We’re in a fiscal crisis, and we’re paying millions of dollars a year for a service we’re getting nothing out of,” said Kyla Romanach, president of the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Still, Claitor says getting rid of the death penalty will be a tough sell, even with a former prosecutor, a former Republican north Louisiana sheriff, and the former Democratic head of the Louisiana State Police sponsoring the legislation.
The state’s district attorneys last week voted unanimously to oppose both bills. “You could create a roll-the-dice mentality for folks who otherwise would be reluctant to go to trial (and possibly receive a death sentence versus pleading guilty for life in prison),” said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association.
Six states have abolished the death penalty since the recession began in 2007, and others are looking at it now.
The Department of Corrections shrugs. Taxpayers pay roughly $1.52 million a year to house condemned inmates on Louisiana’s death row, and that would be about the same if those same inmates were serving life sentences. But that doesn’t take into account that the condemned spend 23 hours a day isolated in individual cells under heavy guard. Most inmates are in dorms that hold up to 100 and thereby can be watched more efficiently.
A legislative committee has been looking into the cost of Louisiana capital punishment for two years, and its report is due in January. The experience of other states could shed a few clues.
Oregon has the death penalty and a slightly smaller, but much wealthier population than Louisiana. A cost analysis in November found that the 61 death sentences handed down by Oregon cost taxpayers an average of $2.3 million, including incarceration costs, while a comparison group of 313 aggravated murder cases cost an average of $1.4 million.
“I don’t think criminal justice should be dictated by financial constraints, although it should be considered and weighed,” said East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III.
During the past nine years, Moore has filed for capital punishment only twice out of 50 or so cases. He doesn’t want to give up that option.
The standards on capital cases are much stricter. It takes about five years for a case to go to trial and then up to 25 years for appeals, Moore said.
Most defendants have court-appointed lawyers. More evidence is necessary. Lengthy social histories are taken, and 300 or more motions are filed. When the trial finally begins, jury selection takes twice as long, and the trial itself is about four times longer.
Taxpayers pick up all those costs.
After sentencing, what happened at trial is reviewed carefully, and when the death sentence becomes final, post-conviction appeals begin.
Other states, Texas in particular, carry out executions in about half the time as Louisiana. Part of the reason is that the Texas attorney general’s office takes the lead once the convictions are finalized. That framework centralizes the work in one office with state lawyers who do little else.
“I’ve always thought it would more efficient and effective to have a centralized appeals process for these cases, like Texas does,” said Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, adding that he would defer to local prosecutors.
If a package of pending bills aimed at reducing Louisiana's world-leading incarceration rate becomes law, it will be because politicians on th…
House Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Sherman Mack opposes the two bills but said the abolition effort will refocus attention on capital punishment. If lawmakers don’t put aside the death penalty in the next two months, then “next year we can fix some of these problems,” the Albany Republican said, promising to bring legislation that would centralize the process under the state attorney general.
“Citizens deserve answers on why we have capital punishment but don’t seem to be able to use it,” Mack added.