Why do states take part in handing down death sentences? The most common answer to that question is the eye for an eye argument, meaning if someone kills another person then the offender deserves the same treatment that the victim received. After all, a murderer should not be able to live after killing an innocent person, right? Now, on some level I tend to agree with that perspective, as murderers deserve to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and the families of victims deserve closure; however, these moral arguments fail to consider the true cost of instituting the death penalty: money. Of course, it always comes down to money and the death penalty is no exception. When evaluating the death penalty, which is still legal in 31 US states, one must determine the trade offs that come with implementing this type of punishment.
On one side of the argument, advocates for the death penalty tend to argue the only way a victim’s family will receive closure is through the offender being killed, while simultaneously arguing the death penalty acts a specific and general deterrent. Furthermore, much like the Just Desserts model in Criminal Justice, a death sentence sends a message to the offender that they deserve exactly what their victims received: death. I used to be a staunch supporter of the death penalty, and these arguments were my rationale for supporting it.
Then, came my Penology class. Penology is the study of the punishment of crime and prison management, so one could assume the death penalty was frequently discussed throughout the class. And what was the thing that stood out the most when we discussed this issue: money. I was absolutely shocked to learn that having the death penalty in a state costs a massive amount of money. As naive as this may have been, I could not help but to look more into the true cost of the death penalty and come to my own conclusion if it is really worth it.
Based on the research, I came to the conclusion that the death penalty is extremely under-utilized in the modern US. Not to say this is a bad thing, but why have something if one is never going to use it? In fact, during 2015, the US carried out only 28 executions and handed out 52 death sentences the same year. This means of the 52 death sentences recorded in the country, only 28 lead to the executions of the offenders. The question must be asked: What happened to the other 24 cases that were given death sentences, but never executed? One could assume in most of these cases, the offenders were either exonerated or given a life sentence, which is just as harsh of a punishment in my opinion. I mean lets be honest, who has the easiest way out? The individual who is about to be executed or the individual that must spend the rest of his/her life in prison? Indeed, death is considered the worst punishment anyone could receive since they no longer can talk to their loved ones and their presence is not physically felt on the Earth anyone. However, if one is about to be executed, this process is much faster than spending the rest of one’s life in prison.
Now the financials regarding the death penalty must be addressed. Surprisingly, keeping someone is prison for the rest of their life is 10 times less expensive than if someone was sent to death row. Why is this? For starters, the wait time on death row is outrageously long, a huge contributing factor to why this process is so expensive. The average waiting time for a Californian to finally get to his/her own execution is 20 years, while the national average is 9 years. The waiting time issue for people on death row can be attributed to the large basis for appeals that death penalty cases give rise to. From the equal protection clause, due process violations, and cruel and unusual punishment claims, death penalty cases are dragged out because many lawyers will do whatever it takes to have their client avoid execution.
As always, taxpayers are on the hook for the increased hours of labor that death penalty cases require. Whether it is the judges, law clerks, or prosecutors; these public employees are payed through taxpayer money, so the longer these death penalty cases drag on, the more money that comes out of the average American’s pocket. The cost to prosecute death penalty cases is 50-90 million more than how much it would cost to prosecute a life sentence case; this is a number that cannot be ignored anymore.
The state of Maryland, not being a big death penalty state, executed only 5 people between the years of 1978 and 1999, but the amount of money it cost the taxpayers was immense: 186 million dollars. The study conducted by the Urban Institute, released in 2008, said there was an extra 71 million dollars coming out of taxpayers pockets when the death penalty was sought by the prosecution, but ultimately not given to the defendant. How can a state rationalize their use of the death penalty when it is barely utilized, simultaneously costing average citizens millions of dollars?
The confusion does not stop with Maryland. The state of New Jersey, and my home state, has eradicated the death penalty, but at one time we did have it. The New Jersey Policy Perspectives published a scathing report of the death penalty within the state and came to the conclusion, since 1983, the death penalty cost taxpayers a staggering amount of 253 million dollars. With that amount of money spent, one would think the state executed a few people, but instead New Jersey executed NO ONE during that time.
One of the authors stated: “From a strictly financial perspective, it is hard to reach a conclusion other than this: 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”.
It does not end there; federal capital punishment cases cost a substantial amount of money as well. On average, a federal death case costs 620,932 dollars per case, which is 8 times more expensive than non-capital punishment cases.
Despite these costs, the US, as a whole, has remained in support of capital punishment, as they did not vote in favor of a UN proposal to move toward the abolition of the death penalty. Fundamentally, this does not make much sense; imagine what capital punishment money could go to if it was not being wasted on people who usually never see the execution room. The solution is simple: put the offenders in prison for the rest of their lives. The US is particularly efficient in this area, so why not utilize a strength when it is needed? Yes, families of victims may not be completely satisfied with that and it may stray away from the US tough on crime approach, but it is necessary. There is no rational basis for the death penalty anymore since it has been shown to cost more than sending someone to prison for the rest of their life. Long waiting times, dragged out appeals, an abundance of money leaving taxpayers’ pockets, and the lack of executions highlight the need to address this matter.
–Contributed by R.A