Government & Politics

Penalty no deterrent, panel told

TOPEKA — Opponents of the death penalty said Tuesday that Kansas' capital punishment law should be repealed, contending that it does not deter crimes and there are viable alternatives.

"In today's world, especially in our country, there is no need to impose the death penalty," Bishop Michael Jackels of the Catholic Diocese of Wichita told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "There are other means to protect the common good against an unjust aggressor."

Eliminating capital punishment does not decrease the condemnation of violent actions, he said, and sentences of life without parole provide alternative punishments.

The committee on Tuesday kicked off a planned three days of hearings on the death penalty. It will hear from supporters of the death penalty today and Thursday.

Committee Chairman Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, said he did not know when the committee might vote on the matter.

Death penalty opponents contend the punishment is costly and does not deter crime.

"After a while, increases in the severity don't contribute to the deterrent effect of the penalty," said University of Colorado sociology professor Michael Radelet.

Money spent on death penalty cases would deter more crime if it was used to catch criminals and solve crimes, he said.

A 2003 state audit showed that costs in death penalty cases averaged $1.2 million, compared with $740,000 for other murder cases.

In the past, supporters have argued that the state's death penalty law is useful, is used sparingly and should not be judged based on cost.

The same committee spent several days last year listening to testimony on Senate Bill 208, which sought to abolish capital punishment for cases sentenced after July 1, 2009.

The bill moved out of committee but faltered on the Senate floor and was returned for more study.

The Kansas Judicial Council studied the issue and recommended a new bill, Senate Bill 375, which would create a new crime of aggravated murder to replace death penalty cases. Anyone convicted of the proposed new crime would face a mandatory life sentence.

"If convicted of aggravated murder, your sentence is life without parole, over, done," said Jeffrey Jackson, a Washburn University associate law professor who sits on the council's Death Penalty Advisory Committee.

The new law would apply to crimes committed on or after July 1. Crimes committed before then would still be eligible to receive a death sentence.

That language addressed a major question some lawmakers raised last year. By tying the change to when the crime was committed, the alternative bill eliminated a lot of the confusion generated by the original proposal, such as what would happen if a death penalty sentence were overturned and sent back to court, Jackson said.

The council did not take a position on the law change, Jackson said.