Originally a strong supporter of the death penalty, Bill Kurtis, the front man on A&E's Investigative Reports, Cold Case Files, and American Justice, has recently become an outspoken opponent of the practice. Kurtis, whose new book is titled The Death Penalty on Trial: Crisis in American Justice, talks with journalist Sasha Abramsky about serial killers, justice, and why he can't watch CBS's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Explain to me where you were, intellectually, on the death penalty when you really started looking at the issue in detail.
Despite a judiciary increasingly dominated by conservative appointees, the federal courts have shown a heartening willingness to rein in the death penalty. In recent years, they have limited who is eligible and have placed other restrictions on states' arbitrary conduct. Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 3, halted the practice of executing mentally retarded prisoners, declaring it unconstitutional in Atkins v. Virginia.
Fifty years ago, more than half a million mentally ill Americans lived in state-run mental hospitals like the one depicted so searingly in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Today, laws protect the mentally ill from needless involuntary stays. As a result, fewer than 80,000 people now live in such institutions.
In the early 1970s, America's prison population began a dramatic expansion that has continued, uninterrupted, ever since. By the year 2000, one in every 14 general-fund dollars spent by the states was being spent on incarceration. Vast high-security prisons were constructed at a cost of a quarter of a billion dollars each. Today, prison spending is, on average, the third-largest state expenditure (after education and Medicaid); more than $40 billion a year is spent on maintaining and running the more than 1,400 prisons nationwide.