The Cost of the Death Penalty


The number of executions in the US is falling, but capital punishment has not disappeared, as some had predicted. It is interesting, as a philosopher, to see what sorts of considerations have an effect in public life on the popularity of this form of punishment. A few years ago discussion focused on the possibility of mistaken executions. This was the main reason The Dallas Morning News stopped supporting it.

During the current economic downturn the cost of executions is becoming more prominent as a consideration. It has been well established that executions are more expensive than long prison terms, even more than life imprisonment. This recent article in The New York Times gives a very good break down of the costs.

It discusses a careful study:

The Urban Institute study of Maryland concluded that because of appeals, it cost as much as $1.9 million more for a state prosecutor to put someone on death row than it did to put a person in prison. A case that resulted in a death sentence cost $3 million, the study found, compared with less than $1.1 million for a case in which the death penalty was not sought.

It is surprising to think that these sorts of considerations are having an effect on the thinking of legislators, but they seem to be.

Another recent article discussed the overall costs of our criminal justice systems. Again, we are finding that legislators are beginning to wonder if taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.

Solomon Moore writes,

Criminal correction spending is outpacing budget growth in education, transportation and public assistance, based on state and federal data. Only Medicaid spending grew faster than state corrections spending, which quadrupled in the past two decades…

He continues:

States have shown a preference for prison spending even though it is cheaper to monitor convicts in community programs, including probation and parole, which require offenders to report to law enforcement officers. …The study found that despite more spending on prisons, recidivism rates remained largely unchanged.

Changing what I think is an overly punitive and wasteful system will be not be easy. He quotes one expert who says that

prisons and jails, along with their powerful prison guard unions, service contracts, and high-profile sheriffs and police chiefs, were in a much better position to protect their interests than were parole and probation officers.

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