The Costs of the Death Penalty

The death penalty is one of the most controversial issues in the justice system influenced by economic, political, and social considerations. The death penalty is often considered immoral as it violates the human rights and freedoms of people granted by the Constitution. On the other hand, the death penalty is costly for the government as it demands millions of dollars spent on imprisonment and execution. The death penalty is a real economic burden for the state demanding millions of dollars a year spend during a prosecution process.

Statistical results state that each year from 1977 to 1989, on average, 242 more offenders were sentenced to death while fewer than 10 were executed. As a consequence, the number of prisoners in the United States under sentence of death climbed steadily from 423 in 1977 to 2,250 in 1989. By 1994, the last year for which data were available, about 17 percent of the prisoners sentenced to die during this period had had their sentences or convictions overturned on appeal, and 7 percent had been executed. Prisoners executed between 1977 and 1983 spent an average of 51 months on death row after sentencing (Haines 6). By 1989, the average elapsed time from sentence to execution was 95 months. “A Maryland study conservatively estimated the additional costs of a capital trial and sentencing at $45,099. Furthermore, a study of Kansas capital cases found that on average, a capital trial and sentencing trial costs $146,196 more than a non-capital murder trial and sentencing” (Kasten, 2008).

The death penalty becomes a real burden for the economy as it demands additional costs spent on attorneys and a series of appeals. These delays frustrated both the public and the courts. By the early 1980s, the Supreme Court’s decisions and treatment of applications for stays of execution began to reflect this frustration. Retired Justice Powell, who earlier had played a major role in reshaping capital laws, questioned whether it was in the public interest to retain a punishment that was not being enforced, noting that excessive delays for appellate review — which rarely had to do with questions of innocence — undermined confidence and respect for the criminal justice system (Control, 1641). He characterized the common practice of manipulating the “malfunctioning” judicial system in order to stall executions as an “abuse of process” that “is unfair to the hundreds of persons confined anxiously on death row” and a disservice to the public interest. “California estimates defense costs for state supreme court review at $66,112-$82,639. Total costs of the state supreme court appeal excluding court costs are estimated between $165,279 and $220,371 per capital case. Other research estimates the total cost to range between $87,041 and $200,440” (Kasten, 2008).

It is important to note that the growth in executions still has not kept pace with the growth in prisoners delivered to death row by the courts each year. Thus, the population of condemned prisoners continues to grow. To the extent that support for capital punishment is a symbolic response by the American public to the violent crime rate, there appears to be little likelihood that the death penalty debate will be resolved soon. This is especially true because violent crime rates have remained high in the United States relative both to levels earlier in this century and to those of other industrialized countries. Indeed, during the 1990s, although the overall crime rate was growing much more slowly than in previous decades, it still was at an all-time high. Homicide rates were 46 percent higher than they had been in 1960. Aggravated assaults reported to police were up 83 percent, and as a whole, serious violent crimes such as rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and homicide were up 57 percent. Less comforting still, just like twenty-five years ago, another baby boom is approaching its high-crime years. As a noted political scientist and criminologist James Q. Wilson summed up in a recent widely-circulated analysis of crime and public policy in the United States (Haines, p. 66).

The government and the state are responsible for funerals and the fee paid to the executioner. “The cost in overtime for guards for each watch is approximately $17,288. Ironically, this 24-hour watch is intended to ensure that the inmate does not kill himself before the scheduled state execution” (Kasten, 2008). While these uses are valid and often may be justified, life without parole as a punishment for murder accrues certain distinct philosophical advantages that are not shared by the sanction’s other uses. Many opponents of capital punishment will champion life without parole as a crucial step toward abolishing the death penalty. While this argument seems sound in light of public opinion polls concerning the death penalty, the sanction also can be used effectively in tandem with capital punishment to benefit criminal justice systems and to protect citizens from violent criminals. Life without parole should not be seen solely as a stepping stone to eliminating capital punishment (Haines, p. 8).

The death penalty becomes a real economic burden for the state and taxpayers. All expenses are paid by the state population through taxes thus, most of them are deprived of a chance to receive good medical help and retirements. The death penalty laws by the state tend to cheapen the very values that refer to humanity itself, to lower the opinion of humanity regarding itself, and to diminish its standards of decency, conscience, and of culture (Logan, p. 41). There is also evidence of compelling nature that the death penalty is more likely to be imposed upon one who is poor, regardless of his race, than upon one who has significant financial resources. For example, a rich man accused of a crime may avoid the death penalty by employing legal counsel and compensating him fully for the excessive time necessary to pursue the multiple remedies available to those under the penalty of death. A poor man, while given the right to counsel, has only that counsel which is volunteered, or which is either compelled or compensated by the state. While such publicly provided counsel is almost always dedicated, it is an avoidance of reality to believe that such counsel can give the kind, range, and detail of service which can come from those compensated at the usual rate paid by the most competent lawyers of our time (Haines, p. 55).

In sum, the economic costs of the death penalty are too high to justify this method o punishment. The state taxpayers are responsible for all expenses spend during the death penalty process. “The total costs of a capital case, beginning with the investigation costs and ending with the execution costs, are estimated to range in the millions of dollars. Studies conducted in Florida, North Carolina, and Texas estimate capital cases cost an average of $3.36 million, $2.16 million, and $2.3 million, respectively” (Kasten, 2008). At this point, one can only speculate about the level of executions and the type and amount of media attention required before capital punishment might become effective in decreasing (deterrence) or increasing (brutalization) killings. What does seem clear, however, is that the current level of executions and media practices regarding executions in this country neither discourage nor promote murder.

Works Cited

  1. Cottrol, R.J. The Death Penalty: An American History. Stanford Law Review, 56, (2004): 1641.
  2. Haines, H. H. Against Capital Punishment: The Anti-Death Penalty Movement in America, 1972-1994. Oxford University Press, 1996.
  3. Logan, W.A. Declaring Life at the Crossroads of Death: Victims’ Anti-Death Penalty Views and Prosecutors’ Charging Decisions. Criminal Justice Ethics, 18 (1999); 41.
  4. Kasten, M. An Economic Analysis of the Death Penalty. 2008.