Anti-death penalty activists driving up costs to TN taxpayers, expert says

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — Tennessee taxpayers pay millions to support death row inmates, and certain social activists cite those numbers when arguing against the state’s use of the death penalty.

But are the activists who oppose capital punishment the same people driving up taxpayer costs?

Yes, according to John Malcolm, a senior legal fellow and director of the Edwin Meese III Center For Legal and Judicial Studies for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.

“Death penalty opponents specialize in driving up the costs associated with the death penalty and then point to those costs as a reason to abolish capital punishment,” Malcolm said.

MALCOLM: John Malcolm, a senior legal fellow and director of the Edwin Meese III Center For Legal and Judicial Studies for the Heritage Foundation.

“Of course, death penalty opponents have no desire to drive the costs down by limiting the number of appeals for death row inmates.”

Tennessee Department of Correction spokeswoman Cindy Dunning told Tennessee Watchdog state taxpayers pay $103.74 per day to house and feed a death row inmate. The state has 76 such inmates, translating to about $2.9 million per year.

In contrast, per day Tennessee taxpayers pay $64.72 to house and feed a non-death row inmate.

Dunning said the extra $39 pays for additional security.

“The Tennessee Department of Correction is always looking for ways to reduce costs and be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” Dunning said in an email, although she didn’t elaborate.

Tennessee Watchdog sent messages requesting comment from the group Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, but no one immediately responded.

A spokeswoman for that organization, Stacy Rector, told FOX 17 of Nashville earlier this month the state has executed only six people since 1960.

“If you described any other government program that is that ineffective and that costly to taxpayers, I think people would be asking a lot of questions,” Rector told the station.

The station cited a 2004 state comptroller study saying capital trials cost 48 percent more than trials in which prosecutors seek life without parole.

“It’s actually the capital trial that’s the most expensive part of the process,” Rector said.

FOX 17 said Tennessee officials planned to execute death row inmate Billy Irick in January but postponed it until October. A jury convicted Irick of raping and killing a 7-year-old girl in 1986.

Media reports list Irick’s attorney as Gene Shiles. A Chattanooga-based attorney by that name did not return a message from Tennessee Watchdog’s on Wednesday.

Malcolm told Tennessee Watchdog the case against capital punishment isn’t as easy as Rector makes out.

“It is certainly true that it costs a lot more to try a death penalty-eligible defendant than to try a defendant in a non-capital case. However, there are seemingly interminable rounds of appeals, many of which are frivolous,” Malcolm said.

“I would also note that some of the costs cited in the FOX 17 story, such as extra security, would likely still be incurred even if those inmates were housed with the rest of the prison population. Since it is most likely the case that death row inmates are more violent than the average prisoner, there would be a need for extra security anyway.”

Malcolm said death penalty opponents neglect to mention that taxpayers have to pay the long-term health care costs of older death row prisoners who aren’t executed.

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