Barack Obama told the entire nation at his inauguration: “And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.” Kansas Senator Carolynn McGinn heard the call and declared that the death penalty was too expensive for a state to keep, in rough and dry times.  McGinn is bringing up the debate as the trial for the murder of an Ark City teen is likely to end with the defendant, Thurber, sentenced to the capital punishment.

Carolynn McGinn: killing people, yes, but only at a cheap price.

Carolynn McGinn: killing people, yes, but only at a cheap price.

Attorney General Steve Six seems to believe that the capital punishment is fundamental to the smooth running of a judicial system and shouldn’t be falling down the trap for mere budget constraints.  “The death penalty structure we have is a responsible one and I think one that is supported well by law enforcement”, he said, yet acknowledging the tremendous costs suffered by the state as murder trials are “intense” cases and require a thorough and complete involvement of the state’s justice department. Kansas wrote off the death penalty in the early 1970s, but reinstated it in 1994, without ever using it. Is a proverbial punishment always commuted to life the “responsible” application of the death penalty Six was mentioning? “The big concern for me is one the law enforcement, public safety side, there are some things you just can’t cut”. A safety net for law enforcement, a hypothetical and hardly efficient coercitive methods could justify a 70 to 80% increase in financial costs for the cases (compared to non-death penalty cases), according to McGinn.

Kansas is facing a terrible deficit as the southern state is reportedly on the brink of a $200 billion shortfall. McGinn argues that cutting on the death penalty is not going to infringe on the efficiency of her justice department, but simply cutting down on unnecessary costs.  “The fact that we have life without parole now, is very important because we can still protect society from individuals that commit such heinous crimes”, she said, reassuring Six’s followers that her decision is motivated solely by financial reasons, and is certainly not due to any laxism on her part. “We want to make sure we have laws on the books that provide citizens safety from people that can be harmful to society”.  Death Penalty Info reports that Kansas is spending about $740,000 on average on a non-death penalty case, compared to $1.26 million for a case involving the capital punishment. (*)

In the words of Jamie Kilstein, must it take an economic crisis to realise the value of a human life? Is it valuable to do the right thing for the wrong reasons? As strange and terribly orwellian as it seems to put a price tag on a human body, it becomes the core argument at the heart of a moral and social debate dividing the United States since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1974. Legal texts (such as the Convention Against Torture and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), international non-profit organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as national research centers like the Innocence Project had all fought a battle of ethics, of soul and of mind that finally was won and overcome by the supremacy of the dollar. A collective conscience might be appeased when Senator McGinn successfully relieves Kansas from the threat of the capital punishment, but it unfortunately won’t have the same brilliance and humanism as Illinois Governor Ryan’s words in 2005: “I’m going to sleep well tonight knowing that I made the right decision. Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious – and therefore immoral – I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death”.

(*) A summary of Kansas’ cost review can be found here.