electric chair, execution chamber, lethal injection, capital punishment
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
The warden at Riverbend Maximum Security
Institution in Nashville, Tenn., gives a tour of
the prison's execution chamber on Oct. 13, 1999.

Study Highlights the High Costs of the Death Penalty

October 22, 2009 07:00 PM
by James Sullivan
With the death penalty already under attack in a number of states, a study conducted by the Death Penalty Information Center found that ending it would save states a considerable amount of money.

An “Expensive and Wasteful Program”

The DPIC’s study found that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year on the death penalty, regardless of whether executions take place. The study reports that each capital trial costs a state nearly $1 million more than a non-death penalty trial. And given that only one in three death penalty trials results in a death sentence, each death sentence in effect costs $3 million—money which the study’s authors argue could be applied to other needs.

The study also released the results of a national poll which revealed that consensus among the nation’s police chiefs is that the death penalty is an ineffective crime deterrent, and ranks low on their crime prevention programs.

“Around the country, death sentences have declined 60% since 2000 and executions have declined almost as much. Yet maintaining a system with 3,300 people on death row and supporting new prosecutions for death sentences that likely will never be carried out is becoming increasingly expensive and harder to justify. The money spent to preserve this failing system could be directed to effective programs that make society safer.”

The Death Penalty Information Center is a national nonprofit that provides information and analysis related to capital punishment. The organization has been criticized in the past for not explicitly stating what many perceive to be an anti-death penalty bias.

Can an Economic Argument Sway Capital Punishment’s Supporters?

The cost of capital punishment has been the focus of many death penalty critics lately. On Sept. 29, Meteor Blades of the Daily Kos asked, “Can the Money Angle End the Death Penalty?” As the left-leaning blog noted: “Pressing for abolition of the barbaric death penalty on moral grounds isn't an argument that has worked in most states.” The Daily Kos post was a response to a New York Times editorial in which the author made a case for the abolition of the death penalty on fiscal grounds, in advance of the DPIC study.

“To the many excellent reasons to abolish the death penalty—it’s immoral, does not deter murder and affects minorities disproportionately—we can add one more. It’s an economic drain on governments with already badly depleted budgets.”

In the 2008 Supreme Court case of Baze v. Rees, where the court debated whether lethal injection violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Justice John Paul Stevens, appointed by President Ford, wrote that “the time for a dispassionate, impartial comparison of the enormous costs that death penalty litigation imposes on society with the benefits that it produces has surely arrived.” That comparison has been undertaken by the DPIC, and is being made by individual states one by one.

The State of the Death Penalty in the U.S.

State officials have made a number of moral and financial arguments against the death penalty in recent years.

In March 2009, New Mexico officially abolished the death penalty. Gov. Bill Richardson, a former supporter of capital punishment, signed the bill into law and referenced evidence that the state had previously executed convicts who were innocent. In December 2007, New Jersey abolished the death penalty, citing both moral and financial grounds, given the high cost of appeals and maintaining a prisoner on death row. In 2004, the New York Court of Appeals declared the state’s capital punishment law unconstitutional, based on “deadlock” provisions in the law. The same court upheld its decision in a subsequent case in 2007. In January 2003, Ill. Gov. George Ryan announced that he was commuting the sentences of 167 death row prisoners due to “the demon of error” in the capital punishment system.

Thirty-five of 50 states have death penalty laws.

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