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Jay Evensen: Why this lawmaker wants to know what the death penalty costs in Utah

SHARE Jay Evensen: Why this lawmaker wants to know what the death penalty costs in Utah
This Jan. 25, 2016, file photo, shows the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This Jan. 25, 2016, file photo, shows the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Politics has only a few “third rails” — topics you don’t want to touch without, like touching the electrified third rail powering a subway train, getting shocked out of your political career.

In a conservative, interior state like Utah, one of those may be the death penalty.

Check that: Utah may be THE state where capital punishment can’t be discussed in polite conversation. This is, after all, where Gary Gilmore was executed in 1977, putting an end to nearly 10 years of no executions nationwide. It’s the last state to have executed someone by firing squad (Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010).

Utah may not carry out a lot of executions (Gardner was the last), but when it does, it tends to get attention.

Which made me curious as to why state Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, keeps touching the rail.

For the second year in a row, Handy will be sponsoring a bill in 2018 that would tell the Legislative Auditor General to do a detailed study of what it costs state and local governments to prosecute a death sentence through all appeals and legal maneuverings. Not only that, the study would look at cases that began as capital cases but ended up as something else, due to a plea bargain or some other reason.

Then those costs would be compared to the cost of housing, feeding and caring for such a prisoner for life.

And if we get this information, then what?

That’s a question for which Handy has no ready answer. It’s one with which the Legislature as a whole, plus the governor, would have to wrestle.

“I just think we ought to know the costs,” Handy told me Tuesday. “I like to make decisions that are data-driven.”

Last year, the same bill sailed through the House and a Senate committee, with Handy telling lawmakers it was “not about the merits of the death penalty,” but about the principle that “good data brings good decisions.”

But it stalled in the Senate as time ran out on the 45-day session.

If you think you’ve heard this before, it’s because Handy ordered a similar study in 2012. That one was conducted by a single legislative analyst and concluded it cost the state $1.6 million more per inmate to prosecute a death sentence than to simply house that inmate for life.

But not long after that became public, critics on both sides said the study was incomplete. In addition to not studying what it costs to prosecute cases that don’t end in an execution, it didn’t look at the cost of providing end-of-life care to inmates who reach their senior years behind bars.

So Handy, who acknowledges he struggles over whether to support or oppose the death penalty, decided to ask for a more thorough review.

He also acknowledges Utah isn’t about to end capital punishment anytime soon. Utah also isn’t likely to follow the example of, say, Nebraska.

In 2015, Nebraska lawmakers voted to outlaw capital punishment. The governor vetoed that, but lawmakers overrode him. That’s when a petition drive was started. In the 2016 election, Nebraska voters overrode the Legislature and kept the death penalty by an overwhelming 61-39 percent margin.

Utahns are unlikely to face that kind of whiplash on this issue. In truth, the death penalty may not be a third rail here after all, given the support Handy’s proposed study received through much of last year’s legislative session.

And yet, he has faced his share of people who are passionate about the issue. Among the most ardent of these are law enforcement officials. Some of them, he said, have told him they don’t care what it costs the state, they want the practice to continue.

Try to imagine that argument regarding any other government function.

Capital punishment is one of the few areas of law in which people become confused between justice and revenge. And yet it also is an area that, understandably, arouses strong emotions, especially among the loved ones of victims.

Handy not only understands this, he isn’t interested in inflaming those feelings.

It’s just hard, as he said, to argue against wanting to know what it all costs.