Ernie Goss-death penalty costs

Ernie Goss completed the death penalty cost review for Retain a Just Nebraska, which is waging a campaign to keep the Nebraska Legislature’s repeal of capital punishment.

LINCOLN — Maintaining the death penalty costs Nebraska an extra $14.6 million a year, according to an estimate prepared for a group seeking to uphold the repeal of capital punishment.

Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who conducted the research, used U.S. Census Bureau statistics on criminal justice expenses per state and looked at reports done in other states to come up with what he called a “first of its kind” estimate.

Goss said additional trial expenses, years of legal appeals and the costs of housing inmates on death row are all well above the cost of cases in which the maximum sentence is life in prison without parole.

“I expected there to be little difference (in cost),” Goss said at a Monday press conference. “Now, I’m reconsidering my position on the death penalty.”

The study, commissioned for $16,000 by the anti-death-penalty group Retain a Just Nebraska, was immediately dismissed by a group working to restore capital punishment.

Bob Evnen of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty pointed to a 2015 fiscal note prepared for the State Legislature that showed “minimal” to “no” additional expenses to maintain the death penalty.

“Opponents of the death penalty want Nebraskans to believe there is some huge price tag associated exclusively with capital punishment, but according to the Legislature’s Fiscal Office, that’s just not true,” said Evnen, a founding member of the pro-death penalty group.

But Goss said that fiscal note, which relied on information from the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office and state prison officials, was not based in science, unlike his estimate.

Nebraskans will decide the fate of the death penalty at the polls on Nov. 8.

Last year, the Legislature repealed capital punishment, overriding a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts. In response, death penalty supporters, financially supported by the governor, conducted a successful petition drive to place the death penalty referendum on the ballot.

The cost of the death penalty, and the multiple barriers to carrying an execution, have been cited by Retain a Just Nebraska as key reasons that Nebraskans should uphold the repeal of capital punishment.

Two state senators, Colby Coash and Kate Bolz, both from Lincoln, told reporters Monday morning that Nebraska could better use the $14.6 million now spent to prosecute and defend the death penalty on other state needs, such as education, property tax relief and reducing prison overcrowding.

Goss’ report noted that between 1973 and 2014 there were 1,842 homicides in Nebraska, but only 33 of the murders resulted in death sentences, and there have been only three executions in the state. The last one was 19 years ago.

“We spent $14.6 million a year over decades and get nothing from it,” Coash said. He called the death penalty a government program that doesn’t work.

Monday’s estimate came out one day after Nebraskans for the Death Penalty released a poll it commissioned showing that Nebraskans favor the death penalty by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio.

Former Nebraska Attorney General Don Stenberg said those results mirror the state’s longtime support for the use of the death penalty as punishment for the most heinous murders.

But officials with Retain a Just Nebraska called the poll flawed because it didn’t offer respondents the alternative of life in prison without parole. They said past polls have shown that the public prefers life without parole if that is offered as an alternative.

Nebraska has 10 inmates on death row, but executions are on hold pending November’s vote on the referendum.

Goss, who is best known for his studies on Nebraska’s economy and tax structure, compared spending on criminal justice activities in states that have a death penalty with similar spending in states that do not.

He calculated that Nebraska spent $533 million on “justice activities” in 2013. Without the death penalty, the cost would have been about $519 million, he wrote. Adjusted for inflation, the difference would have been $14.6 million in 2015.

Among the extra expenses cited by Goss was additional preparation time for hearings and jury selection. Also, Nebraska law requires two defense attorneys to be appointed in death penalty cases; only one is required for non-death cases.

In addition, state law requires a second sentencing trial in death penalty cases to determine whether aggravating circumstances exist to warrant a death sentence, thus increasing trial expenses.

Goss also looked at studies done by other states. Among them was a Colorado study that concluded that attorneys required six times more days in court for death penalty cases that go to trial. In addition, a California study estimated that it cost an additional $90,000 a year to imprison someone on death row.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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