My state of Wyoming, like most every other state across the country, is struggling to find ways of dealing with the serious fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic on our state budget. The economic slowdown caused by the pandemic has decimated tax revenues, while the demand for government services continues to increase.
Wyoming has experienced the added negative budget impact caused by the drop in oil prices.
As state legislator, I view myself as fiscally conservative, as well as socially conservative and liberty-minded. I serve on the Wyoming House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, so I deal directly with the state’s budget. In that position, I have become intimately familiar with the appropriation we make fruitlessly each year to fund the most wasteful government program of all—the death penalty.
Wyoming does not have a single death row inmate, and yet we spend nearly one million dollars a year just to have the death penalty. As long as the statute is on the books, we are obligated to maintain the Death Penalty Defense Fund.
Let’s be clear, I oppose the death penalty for a variety of reasons. The protection of human life in the wake of so many people being falsely accused and sentenced to death—at least 170 nationwide at last count—is reason enough for conservatives to turn against this system.
That’s an individual liberty issue if there’s ever been one.
But I also become downright agitated by the waste of taxpayer dollars on a sentence that does nothing to make anyone safer. In better times, I would like to direct that money instead to bring reforms that will improve our justice system.
But right now, our priority must be balancing the state budget. Last month Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, also a Republican, floated the possibility of a death penalty moratorium. Gov. Gordon told a legislative committee that having the death penalty is a “luxury … that we will no longer be able to afford.”
The governor is facing the reality of a possible $1.5 billion deficit due to the pandemic and the energy downturn.
With so many states facing similar dire circumstances, I recently took part in an online conference with fellow Republican state legislators from Georgia and Ohio, hosted by Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.
We all agreed that in response to pandemic-caused deficits, the death penalty should be the very first budget item to be axed.
Editor’s note: A YouTube report on the GOP anti-death penalty conference can be downloaded here.
According to a 2016 Susquehanna University study, the pursuit of a death sentence costs “$1.12 million more than a general population inmate.” The study also found that death penalty cases cost more because of the requirement of two trials—one focused on guilt or innocence and another for sentencing—along with the expense of lengthy appeals and the added costs of housing on death row.
As fiscal conservatives, we should all be focused on the bottom line. The money thrown away on the useless death penalty is desperately needed to fund our constituents’ most basic needs at this time of budget crisis.
As the pandemic ravages state budgets across America, there is no way state lawmakers anywhere can justify continued funding of a completely failed and insanely costly public policy, which is exactly what the death penalty is.
Jared Olsen is a state representative from Cheyenne, WY. He welcomes readers’ comments.