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Death and Taxes: The Real Cost of the Death Penalty

September 22, 2011 · 0 comments

On September 21, 2011, at exactly 11:08 p.m. EST, Troy Davis was put to death by the state of Georgia after the U.S. Supreme Court failed to grant him a stay. His execution by legal injection became the 1,268th recorded execution in the United States since 1976. Later that same day, Lawrence Brewer of Texas would become 1,269.

Davis’ death has become a polarizing story in the death penalty debate in the U.S. Capital punishment is allowed in most states since it was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976; it was suspended from 1972 to 1976 following the Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972). As of 2011, only fifteen states have abolished the death penalty. They are Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin. But there’s a chance that those numbers might increase. And maybe not for the reasons that you might think.

Opponents of the death penalty have cited a number of factors that argue in favor of abolishing the death penalty. It is, they say, not an effective deterrent against crime. Statistics appear to back this up: states which impose the death penalty continue to report the highest murder rates in the country with only three states without the death penalty ranked in the top twenty five (Michigan, New York and Alaska).

Other arguments include evidence that the death penalty may be racially biased and that it disproportionately punishes the poor. And of course, there is the fundamental assertion that the death penalty is cruel and inhumane.

For years, these reasonings have failed to sway a majority of Americans. But now, something else may be turning the tide of public opinion – and it has little to do with ethical, moral or legal arguments. It’s all about cold, hard cash.

As states face increased pressure to cut costs in their budgets, every line item is getting a second look. One startling finding? Death penalty cases are, from start to finish, more expensive than other criminal cases including those that result in life without parole.

How expensive is the death penalty? Just over a year ago, Fox News issued this alarming statement:

Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes.

Dramatic, sure. But some claim that the data backs up these assertions.

While the actual execution costs taxpayers fairly little (the drugs used in Texas run a mere $83), the costs associated with death penalty trials and the resulting incarceration are disproportionately higher.

Citing Richard C. Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, Fox reported that studies have “uniformly and conservatively shown that a death-penalty trial costs $1 million more than one in which prosecutors seek life without parole.”

Urban Institute study (downloads as a pdf) found that “[i]n Maryland death penalty cases cost 3 times more than non-death penalty cases, or $3 million for a single case” while a 2004 Report from Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Office of Research that claimed “[i]n Tennessee, death penalty trials cost an average of 48% more than the average cost of trials in which prosecutors seek life imprisonment.”

And in cash strapped California, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice issued a report (downloads as a pdf) that concluded, among other things, that “[i]t can certainly be said that death penalty trials take longer and cost considerably more than non-death murder trials.”

I assumed that this was because of all of the post-trial finagling that goes on. I was wrong. After reviewing data from state reports, Amnesty International concluded that “the greatest costs associated with the death penalty occur prior to and during trial, not in post-conviction proceedings. Even if all post-conviction proceedings (appeals) were abolished, the death penalty would still be more expensive than alternative sentences.”

The numbers associated with jail time are just as large. In terms of dollars spent behind bars, the California Commission found that “the additional cost of confining an inmate to death row, as compared to the maximum security prisons where those sentenced to life without possibility of parole ordinarily serve their sentences, is $90,000 per year per inmate. With California’s current death row population of 670, that accounts for $63.3 million annually.” Since that statement, California’s death row has grown to 721, the largest in the country.

The story is the same in North Carolina. A 2010 Duke University study found that taxpayers in the Tarheel State could save $11 million a year by substituting life in prison for the death penalty.

The numbers are even more dramatic in Garden State. Prior to the abolishing the death penalty in the state, a report by New Jersey Policy Perspectives found that “New Jersey taxpayers over the last 23 years have paid more than a quarter billion dollars on a capital punishment system that has executed no one.”

But the end result is worth it, right?

Maybe not. At least ten states, including Florida, Texas and California, have been forced to release prisoners early because of overcrowding – all of those states have expensive death penalty programs. Budgetary restraints have resulted in shortened sentences (some as low as 20%) and lay-offs of corrections officers inside prisons, as well as reduced numbers of police officers on the streets. More telling, in one Washington county, Prosecutor Dan Satterberg was forced to eliminate the jobs of 36 prosecutors since 2008 – all while the cost of defending two active capital cases escalated.

Who pays those costs? You and I. State and local governments typically bear the burden of paying to pursue death penalty cases – and that means tax dollars. Even prosecutors agree that those costs aren’t always worth it.

Raising taxes to pay for death penalty prosecutions isn’t going to win over many taxpayers even though such increases have happened in some counties (as it did notoriously in Lincoln County, Georgia). However, the alternatives – cutting police or releasing prisoners early – are hardly appealing.

So in a depressed economy, do you cut your losses? Is now the time to say goodbye to the death penalty? Some states, like Kansas, have been making some noise about it. Will others follow suit? I don’t know.

I do know that it feels weird to be talking about a person’s life in terms of dollars and taxes. But then, to pretend that it isn’t a real consideration would clearly be disingenuous.

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