As the Legislature begins to seriously consider the budget for the upcoming biennium, legislators will be faced with some hard decisions. Revenue is down, and there aren’t many more ways to cut the fat.
But there is one way: end the death penalty in Wyoming.
The death penalty is an intolerable denial of civil liberties and is inconsistent with the fundamental values of our democratic system.
It’s applied in an unfair and unjust manner against people, largely dependent on how much money they have, the skill of their attorneys, race of the victim and where the crime took place.
It's not a deterrent to crime. States without the death penalty continue to have significantly lower murder rates than those that retain capital punishment.
But more than that, it’s expensive. The death penalty has cost Wyoming taxpayers millions of dollars over the years. At a minimum, every biennium the state must budget $1.5 million on the death penalty – even without anyone on death row. That number skyrockets with an actual death penalty case. On top of that, counties must spend hundreds of thousands of county tax dollars on prosecuting a death penalty case, a prosecution that could easily bankrupt a county with a low tax base, ensuring the only people who will ever even see a death penalty prosecution are those living in counties that can afford to bring one.
What do those dollars go toward? There’s very little to show for it – except for the millions of Wyoming taxpayer dollars wasted on both a state and a local level on an unequally applied, ineffective death penalty that serves no common definition of justice.
That’s why repealing the death penalty is something to seriously consider as we move into the Legislature’s Budget Session in 2020.
By failing to adequately fund the Wyoming State Public Defender’s Office, criminal defendants are being denied their constitutional right to a zealous defense. This inadequate funding has resulted in public defenders carrying excessive workloads that violate national standards and make it impossible for them to meaningfully represent each and every client. Ethical caseloads are necessary to preserve the integrity of the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the rights of criminal defendants, including their right to an attorney. If just one death penalty care is brought, it would tap the resources of the Public Defender’s office. Two or more cases would cause a crisis.
While this situation is extremely alarming, there is common-sense solution readily available.
By repealing the death penalty, that money – $1.5 million every biennium – can immediately go to raises for hard-working public servants and hiring more lawyers to represent Wyoming residents who are guaranteed legal counsel under our Constitution.
The money saved by repealing the death penalty in Wyoming and not trying capital cases would help solve the budget shortfall that is contributing to inadequate indigent defense.
The time to take up a bill ending the death penalty in Wyoming is now.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.