Sunday, September 28, 2008

Price isn't right for the death penalty

By Jack Payden-Travers
Article Launched: 09/27/2008 10:56:50 PM PDT

AS the country's economic woes continue to mount, frightening many Americans, it has become clear that the United States simply cannot afford capital punishment.

The death penalty is the revenue-guzzling SUV to the cost-efficient hybrid of life without parole. Researchers all over the country are crunching the numbers and coming to the same conclusion - the death penalty is far too expensive.

In its recently released report, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice found that California's current death penalty system costs $137 million annually compared with $11.5 million for a system without the death penalty. The commission also reported that California's system is "dysfunctional" and that it will cost an additional $200 million a year to fix it.

In January 2008, New Jersey became the first state to abolish the death penalty in 40 years.

The New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission's report included the costs of a capital punishment system as one of the seven issues it studied. It noted that costs associated with death penalty cases are significantly higher than those associated with life without parole cases.

The New Jersey Department of Corrections estimated an average savings to the state of over $1 million over each inmate's lifetime. In addition the Commission noted "the devastating emotional costs of the death penalty ... the adverse effects of executions on third parties: judges, jurors, judicial staff, correctional staff, journalists, clergy and spiritual advisors, as well as the families of the victim and the families of the condemned inmate ... these intangible emotional and psychological costs must also be taken into consideration in weighing the costs of the death penalty."
In Maryland, the Urban Institute study of March 2008 noted that it costs the state three times more to try a death penalty case than a non-death penalty case. The report stated that "an average capital-eligible case resulting in a death sentence will cost approximately $3 million, $1.9 million more than a case where the death penalty was not sought."

A 2004 study in Tennessee said the findings were the same. Capital trials cost almost 50 percent more than trials where life without parole is sought. Similar findings have been made in Washington, North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, Kansas and Texas.

The death penalty is a failed government program for many reasons. One is that it is a colossal waste of government resources. Since 1977 we've carried out over 1,100 executions in this country to the tune of what is conservatively estimated over $1 billion. We would have been far wiser using this money to meet our many pressing needs, such as improving our schools, building safer communities, fixing our deteriorating infrastructures, shoring up our social security system, providing health insurance for children, etc.

That money has only purchased a system that doesn't work. In the last 3 decades, 129 individuals have been released from death row because they were innocent. That's one exoneration for every 9 executions. Would you buy a car that failed to start one time out of 10?

Whether one believes in the death penalty or not, we have to face the true costs of this policy. Nearly 3,300 men and women sit on death row right now.

Even if the United States were to return to the heyday of the death penalty, 1998 with 98 executions, it would take more than 30 years to kill all of these individuals. What will the cost of execution have risen to by then?

The reality is that most individuals remain on death row for at least 10 years before all state and federal appeals are completed. Based on the 129 exonerations so far we know it takes on average nine years and three appeals to reverse a wrongful conviction.

Many prisoners will die of natural causes before they can be executed. It would be far cheaper to commute these sentences to life without parole than to continue this failed policy of state killing. Indeed juries which now have the option of life in prison without parole in 35 of the 36 death penalty states are increasingly refusing to sentence people to death.

The death penalty is a bankrupting policy. Let's abolish it.

Jack Payden-Travers is the public education associate with the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project


dudleysharp said...

Mr. Payden-Travers screwed up the math on this, substantially.

Approximately, 8000 folks have been sentenced to death row soince, 1973. Of those, possibly 25 actual innocents have been discovered and removed from death row. The anti death penalty claims that the number of exonerated is 129 is a blatant deception, easily revealed with fact checking.

Therefore, it is 1 out of 320 convictions which result in actual innocent sent to death row, or about 0.3%.

All of those have been released, meaning that the error rate for the actual innocents executed is 0%.

Of all the government programs in the world, that put innocents at risk, is there one with a safer record and with greater protections than the US death penalty?


dudleysharp said...

Regarding costs:

The Urban Institute's Maryland cost analysis wrongly credited plea bargains to a life sentence to the life sentence ledger, when the plea must be credited to the death penalty, because such plea bargains can exist only when the death penalty is an option. There were other issues, as well. When corrected, this may culminate in a death sentence being cheaper than life without parole.

The NJ Death Penalty Commission concluded that they the death penalty was more expensive, but that they couldn't properly evaluate costs. Hmm.
See cost analysis at NJ Death Penalty Commission Made Significant Errors July 5, 2007 , at paragraph 2 on page 2

Generally, most of the other cost studies have one or more of the following problems.
1) Most studies exclude the cost of geriatric care, recently found to be $60,000-$80,000/inmate/yr. A significant omission from life sentence costs.
2) All studies exclude the cost savings of the death penalty, which is the ONLY sentence which allows for a plea bargain to a maximum life sentence. Such plea bargains accrue as a cost benefit to the death penalty, estimated at $500,000 to $1 million, the cost of trials and appeals for every such plea bargain, See Maryland, above.
This MIGHT result in a minimal cost differential between the two sanctions or an actual net cost benefit to the death penalty, depending upon how many LWOP cases are plea bargained and how many death penalty cases result in a death sentence.
3) FCC economist Dr. Paul Zimmerman finds " ... it is estimated that each state execution deters somewhere between 3 and 25 murders per year (14 being the average). Assuming that the value of human life is approximately $5 million {i.e. the average of the range estimates provided by Viscussi (1993)}, our estimates imply that society avoids losing approximately $70 million per year on average at the current rate of execution all else equal." (1) 15 additional recent studies, inclusive of their defenses, support the deterrent effect. No cost study has included such calculations.
Although we find it inappropriate to put a dollar value on life, evidently this is not uncommon for economists, insurers, etc.
We know that living murderers are infinitely more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers. There is no doubt that executions do save innocent lives. What value do you put on the lives saved? Certainly not less than $5 million. "State Executions, Deterrence and the Incidence of Murder", Paul R. Zimmerman (, 3/3/03, Social Science Research Network, ?
4) a) Some studies compare the cost of a death penalty case, including pre trial, trial, appeals and incarceration, to only the cost of incarceration for 40 years, excluding all trial costs and appeals, for a life sentence. The much cited Texas "study" does this. Hardly an apples to apples cost comparison.
b) The pure deception in some cost "studies" is overt. It has been claimed that it costs $3.2 million/execution in Florida. That "study" decided to add the cost of the entire death penalty system in Florida ($57 million), which included all of the death penalty cases and dividing that number by only the number of executions (18). One could just have easily stated that the cost of the estimated 200 death row inmates was $285,000 per case.
5) All death penalty appeals, direct and writ, should travel through the process concurrently, giving every appellate issue 7 years of consideration through state and federal courts. There is no need for repetition and delay. This would result in a significant cost reductions.
6) No state, concerned with justice, will base a decision on cost alone. If they did, all cases would be plea bargained for probation.