A Criminal Enterprise

Careful Not to Learn the Wrong Lessons from Michael Anderson’s Death Sentence

Posted in Uncategorized by Robert Smith on September 1, 2009

“Orleans Parish Justice System Improving – Anderson Death Recommendation Is First Since 1997, ”  is the title of this recent article by Local New Orleans news affiliate WDSU. Noting the dispiriting headline, a friend quipped that the title should be changed: “After Wasting Millions on Fruitless Capital Prosecutions, DA’s Office Doubles Down in Death Case for a Costly Eighteen Year Appeal”

We know Governor Bobby Jindal’s position: “[A] price tag cannot be placed on justice. Executions, he said, create safer communities by acting as a deterrent to crime.” (The Advocate, article on the “Economics of Executions”). But what happens when we stop looking at death penalty  in a vacuum and reframe capital punishment as a menu option in the wider effort to increase public safety. Put another way, given the limited resources that the Louisiana legislature is willing (or able) to allocate to the criminal justice system and the infamous fiscal problems in New Orleans itself, what is the proper allocation of scarce public resources if the goal is to save the most lifes?

While Louisiana  prosecutors describe the costs of the death penalty in qualatative terms: “unbelievable, ”  “staggering, ” “horrible, ” “stakes are high [] expenses are higher” (Economics of Executions), no hard numbers are available on the total costs of capital cases versus non-capital life without parole (LWOP) prosecutions in Louisiana. But we have some idea, mostly from the estimates of state prosecutors. “[Louisiana Attorney General] Caldwell said he could try a second-degree murder case for $15,000 to $20,000, compared to at least $250,000 to put a death-penalty defendant on trial.” (Advocate, Economic of Executions). And that’s just the trial. The state public defender estimates that defending capital appeals drains $8 million,  or roughly 1/3 of the total state-funded appellate indigent defense budget to defend a handful of  cases.  Of course, the State also has to defend these cases on appeal, which unlike LWOP cases, must be heard (as of right, not discretion) by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The divergent costs between LWOP and death are just getting started at this point. While most non-death state criminal cases are never appealed to the United States Supreme Court or to the federal courts on habeas review, these appeals are pressed uniformly in capital cases. Meanwhile, death sentented inmates are housed in separate, more secure facilities at Angola, which translates into an increased cost to house each of the 85 death row inmates. Death row inmates, unlike inmates who commit the same crime but are sentenced to life in prison, are unable to do “hard labor” around the prison. So the tax payers aren’t even receiving labor in exchange for the hefty costs of incarceration.

Assuming a marginal deterrent value to the death penalty (which, to be clear, is a doubtful proposition denounced by the heft of criminologists), is there a better way to spend the money to save more lives?

Let’s return to Orleans Parish (where the Parish foots the bill for at least the pre-trial and trial expenses). Governor Jindal supports the imminent closure of the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital, which provided mental health treatment to over 700 patients last year. As WDSU reports in this article, some law enforcement officials are not happy with the plan:

“The people I voted for to speak on my behalf overwhelmingly made the decision to the keep this open, and it’s going to be overridden by our governor?” said Cecile Tebo, of the New Orleans Police Department Crisis Unit. “I mean, pardon the pun, but that’s kind of insane.”

“The large number of people committing these crimes are people who have mental health problems,” said Orleans Parish Civil Sheriff Paul Valteau.

“It’s a huge dangerous step backwards,” said Cecile Tebo, of the New Orleans Police Department Crisis Unit.

To illustrate the link between mental health and violence in New Orleans, the WDSU article relays the story of New Orleans police officer Nicola Cotton,  who was killed last year by a mentally ill person living on the street. She is not alone. A 2006 US Department of Justice report estimates the 56% of state prisoners are mentally ill. The percentage of inmates who have mental health problems and committed a violent crime is higher still.

New Orleans also claims one of the highest highschool dropout in the country: In 2008, only 39% of high school seniors received a diploma. The following testimony by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute to the Maryland Commission studying capital punishment details the relationship between poor high school graduation rates and violence:

A team of leading economists from Columbia, Princeton and Queens College estimates that increasing high school graduation rates would decrease violent crime by 20 percent and drug and property crimes by more than 10 percent.  They calculated that each additional high school graduate yielded an average of $26,500 in lifetime cost savings to the public. (This estimate accounts for the expense of trials, sentencing and incarceration.) These economists estimate that each Black male who graduates from high school is associated with a savings of more than $55,000. By the same accounting, each Latino male graduate saves the public $38,500. Another research study found that a 1 percent increase in high school graduation rates would save the nation as much as $1.4 billion each year in crime-related costs. Thus, one could very legitimately argue, from a purely economic standpoint, that one of the most effective ways to reduce crime in Baltimore would be to implement effective dropout prevention programs that will increase high school graduation rates in the city.

One argument against trading post-hoc punitive measures for preventative ones is that the Orleans Parish District Attorney does not itself possess the authority to reallocate these funds. But the DA certainly has the ability to reallocate how his office spends its limited budget. For context, in January of this year, the DA’s office contemplated filing bankruptcy. Even before then, it struggled to find a way to stave off the firing off 20 employees. In the midst of ther financial turmoil, a 2009 report highlights the dismal arrest to conviction felony conviction rate in New Orleans:

In a city where police officers make more than 50,000 arrests annually, often for minor municipal and traffic offenses, serious felony cases all too often end up in a dismissal or plea of guilty to a lesser crime, according to a new analysis of arrests made in New Orleans two years ago.

The study by the Metropolitan Crime Commission found that of the 8,160 felony arrests made by New Orleans Police Department officers in 2007, only 1,977 — or 24 percent — led to a felony conviction. Results from the arrest and prosecution of people charged with violent crimes are even less successful, with a 13 percent conviction rate for the 1,214 violent felony arrests made in 2007.

Quote from this Time-Pic Article discussing the report.

Increasing mental health funding,  increasing high school graduation rates, and spending more money to better prepare to convict violent criminals and taking them off the streets, all  seem like a better use of money than pursuing the rarely obtainable and always costly capital prosecution. Michael Anderson was the first death sentence in Orleans Parish in twelve years. Like the last death sentence, which was handed down in 1997, the Anderson case involved multiple victims . Belief that the verdict in Anderson is a sea-change that will mean more death sentences in Orleans (as opposed to an aberration in a particular difficult case) is a gamble, and one that the Orleans Parish District Attorney  seems willing to take. But DA Cannizzaro would be wise to recall the words of Attorney General Caldwell: Seeking the death penalty is akin to  “playing on a $100-a-roll table instead of a nickel or dime table.” (Advocate, Economics of Executions). That’s a gamble Orleans Parish cannot afford to take.

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