The Costs of the Death Penalty

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6 March 2010

The Costs of the Death Penalty



The United States is suffering from an economic recession and everyone, including state governments, is looking for ways to cut costs while still meeting their obligations. The number of uninsured Americans is at an all time high and unemployment lines are continuing to grow as more and more Americans are losing their jobs. Where are state governments going to get funds to provide unemployment and medical benefits for all their unemployed and uninsured citizens? Is removing the costly death penalty option as a punishment for crime the answer? Would these funds be better spent on educating youth, rehabilitating criminals, and law enforcement? One of the main arguments, a thread full of questionable and contradictory statistics, used by both sides of the death penalty controversy is related to the costs of its administration and why it is continued to be used even though life in prison is more cost efficient.

The death penalty is the execution of a person as a punishment for an offense. Currently, the death penalty is practiced in 58 nations but has been abolished in 95 countries. Within the United States of America, 15 states of the U.S. and the District of Columbia have banned capital punishment but Texas leads the nation with about one third of the consummated executions (“Capital Punishment” 7). The fight over whether the death penalty should be abolished continues to be debated with costs being one of the major topics of disagreement. Cost incurred to administer the death penalty punishment includes incarceration cost, trial cost, and an expensive appeals process.

The controversy related to the costs of the death penalty compared to life in prison without parole is complicated by the fact that cost numbers quoted by advocates and abolitionists are not always accurate. Many of the studies do not contain actual cost data while others only include incomplete data resulting in a faulty comparison between nondeath and death penalty case (“Does the death penalty cost less than life in prison without parole?” 1). The misleading conclusion, drawn from the reported costs, stems from the different ways the various states keep their records and the large variety of costs associated with capital punishment.

Expenses incurred to enforce the death penalty include many items that are not necessary for a life without parole sentence and the costs are further escalated by the length of time required for death penalty cases. The cost of the new iPhone 3G-S is about twice as much as a lethal injection costs in North Carolina ("The high costs of the death penalty” 2). Costs to actually put the criminal to death are not the primary costs associated with this sentence. The real costs for death penalty trials are spent on: two attorneys for the defendant, expert witnesses, jury selection, investigation costs, two trials including one for the verdict and one for sentencing, and then an automatic appeals process. When the death penalty is sought as the punishment, seldom do the defendants plea guilty; therefore, if the state does not win a death penalty verdict they still incur costs of life imprisonment on top of trial costs (What Politicians Don’t Say about the High Costs of the Death Penalty” 1). It is not to the benefit of the state to seek the death penalty verdict since the Constitution requires a lengthy appeals process to protect United States citizens from faulty verdicts.

Although controversy exists about the costs of the death penalty, many states continue to try to quantify these costs to determine whether the death penalty should be abolished or enforced. The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice determined that they spend approximately $90,000 per inmate per year for the 670 people they have on death row plus the $34,000 annual incarceration costs for prisoners serving life sentences which totals out to about $138 million a year (“The price of death” 1). These same high costs were reported by several death penalty states. Maryland reported that their state spends about $1.9 to $3 million more than the cost of a non-death penalty cases on death penalty cases (“Financial Facts About the Death Penalty” 1). Oklahoma reported that they incurred $13 million to convict and execute the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh (“Death penalty doesn’t belong in N.H.” 1). State expenditures on death penalty cases are so exorbitant that they cause a hefty burden to the state government budgets. Due to these debatable costs, the argument continues between the death penalty advocates and abolitionists.

Advocates of the death penalty argue that the costs are irrelevant and the only important issue is for criminals to pay for their crimes to keep society safe from harm. Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation stated “People value justice for its own sake, aside from issues of deterrence and economics…Would you have Timothy McVeigh grinning at you from his jail cell his entire life the way Charles Manson has?” (“Debating the Cost of Capital Punishment” 1). Mr. Scheidegger points out that society is more concerned about making sure that criminals know the steep consequences for their mistakes and that justice is carried out rather than the dollar costs to make our country safe. Advocates believe the question should be not whether to repeal the death sentence but how we can make it a less costly option by possibly changing the lengthy and costly appeals process.

Abolitionists of the death penalty argue that costs are relevant and that the money saved from ending the death penalty could be more wisely spent. The costs of administering the death sentence are not well spent government funds because in most cases the defendants being tried end up dying of natural causes due to the time intensive appeals process (“Debating the cost of the death penalty” 1). Money is wasted even if the verdict is death because the death sentence is rarely carried out and most death cases realistically result in life in prison. “I am already behind bars no longer a threat to society, but every dollar spent to assure my death (or anyone else’s for that matter) means a dollar less toward the funding of more police, more prison cells, neighborhood watch programs or toward any of the other programs aimed at reducing crime” (“A voice from death row” 2). These words spoken by, Michael Ross, a death row inmate, support how government funds could be more wisely spent to deter crime in society. In New Mexico and New Jersey, the death penalty has been abolished and the funds saved have been redirected toward better law enforcement and other public needs ("Debating the Cost of Capital Punishment" 1). These savings in their state budgets have helped the states provide better services to their citizens. There is too much focus on assuring that a criminal, who is incarcerated, is put to death rather than using the funds to prevent crimes before they happen.

Advocates and abolitionist of the death penalty continue to debate whether enforcing the death penalty is money well spent. Due to the exorbitant cost of death penalty implementation, the economic impact on taxpayers is not justified. The millions of dollars used to administer the death penalty would be better spent trying to rehabilitate criminals, increasing security in our communities, educating youth, and offering them programs to stay out of trouble. In addition, state governments could free up funds to be able to better serve their residents with more police protection, unemployment benefits, insurance benefits, and legal funds to clean out cases, an ancient and stale load, that are weighing down our legal system. Since both sides of the argument agree the death penalty is more costly than life in prison, the only question remaining should be how the money saved can be better spent for the benefit of all.





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Impressed said...
Mar. 4, 2014 at 1:58 pm
I was very impressed with the thoroughness of the author. My only question is how do I cite you Chicago style?
 
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