Las Vegas Sun

September 17, 2014

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Looking in on: Carson City:

Death penalty a costly proposition

Study finds few in state executed, expenses high

Only 8 percent of those sentenced to death in Nevada have been executed in the past 25 years. Almost as many Death Row inmates die from natural causes as from execution.

Those are the statistics from Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who suggests the death penalty is far more expensive than keeping an inmate in prison for life.

Dieter, testifying by telephone to the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice, said nationally two-thirds of death penalties are overturned on appeal. And 82 percent of those sentenced end up getting life terms, he added.

The cost of the death penalty cases has escalated because of numerous appeals, which run 12 years on average, he said. New Jersey hasn’t executed one Death Row inmate in 25 years but has spent $250 million in the same period.

The advisory commission, headed by Nevada Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty, is considering changes in the criminal law but has not yet made its recommendations to be presented to the 2009 Legislature.

Dieter said he hasn’t done any studies on the costs of Death Row inmates in Nevada.

There are 83 inmates on Death Row in Nevada, and there have been 12 executions since 1976. Las Vegas killer Patrick Castillo was the most recent inmate to face execution. He was sentenced to death for the tire-iron slaying of 86-year-old Isabelle Berndt in her Las Vegas home in 1998.

Castillo had given up his appeals and was scheduled to be executed in October 2007. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada submitted an appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court on his behalf and the execution was called off. Since then, Castillo has decided he’ll pursue additional appeals.

Dieter said Nevada differs from other states in that almost all of those executed have waived further court appeals.

•••

The Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice received a report that the crime rate in Clark County has dropped 15 percent in the past five years.

James Austin of the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments said the study shows there have been 33 homicides from January to May this year compared with 55 in the same period in 2003.

Rape was the only major crime to show an increase, up 4 percent in the January-May comparison with 2003. And car thefts have dropped 28 percent in the five-year comparison.

Metro Assistant Sheriff Raymond Flynn said that adding 400 officers was responsible in part for the drop in the crime rate.

The department also was “working smarter,” he said. For example, the department is using “bait cars” to lure auto thieves.

Still, the Las Vegas area is the crime center of Nevada. With 70 percent of the population, 79 percent of violent crimes occur in Southern Nevada and 76 percent of property crimes are committed in Clark County, according to Austin, who is on contract with the commission.

•••

The Legislature is looking ahead to its 2009 session. One of the bills being proposed would bar minors from using cell phones while driving.

Assemblyman Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, notes that his proposed legislation doesn’t go as far as a recent California law that makes it illegal to hold a cell phone while driving. Manendo said there will be discussions about including adults in the bill.

He introduced a similar bill in 2007 but it didn’t get out of the Assembly Transportation Committee. He says there is more support this time and called it a “good first step” because teens are easily distracted while driving.

Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, says he doesn’t favor joining California in the cell phone ban. There are studies, he said, showing that motorists can hold on to a cell phone and drive safely at the same time. “It’s up to the individual,” he said.

On the other hand, Nolan wants to toughen the seat belt laws, making not wearing a seat belt a primary offense.

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