The Cost of Punishment: The Expense of the Death Penalty Has Lawmakers Reconsidering an Old Debate

By Williams, Richard | State Legislatures, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview

The Cost of Punishment: The Expense of the Death Penalty Has Lawmakers Reconsidering an Old Debate


Williams, Richard, State Legislatures


The question of whether capital punishment is an acceptable way to administer justice has long perplexed the nation's lawmakers and divided its citizens.

Traditional arguments pit those who believe the death penalty has no place in a civilized society against supporters who see it as an appropriate deterrent and punishment for the most heinous crimes.

Capital punishment's unstable history demonstrates how contentious the debate has been. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court suspended the death penalty on the grounds it violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The decision voided existing statutes in 40 states. Then in 1976, the court reauthorized capital punishment, enabling states to reenact their death penalty statutes. Thirty-seven did, but three of those--Illinois, New Jersey and New Mexico-have abolished their laws since 2007. With those changes, 16 states currently do not use capital punishment.

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A COSTLY CONVICTION

Although the debate continues to he rooted in philosophical arguments, the recent legislative action abolishing the death penalty has been spurred by practical concerns.

New Jersey abolished its death penalty in 2007 in large part because the state had spent $254 million over 21 years administering it without executing a single person.

"It makes more sense fiscally to have inmates be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole than to have them sit on death row and to go through the appeals process," says Senator Christopher "Kip" Bateman, the bill's sponsor, "New Jersey is going through tough times financially and any decision that is ethical in nature and promotes fiscal responsibility is a win-win for the state."

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New Mexico lawmakers followed in 2009, ending capital punishment over similar cost concerns.

"There is no more inefficient law on the books than the death penalty," says Representative Antonio "Moe" Maestas, co-sponsor of the bill to repeal it. "It sounds very callous and shallow to talk about cost, but we spend other people's money, and we have to consider scarce resources."

Maestas believes his perspective is particularly persuasive because it's rooted in pragmatism rather than personal idealism. "The bottom line is, I don't care if the most heinous criminals die. They should. But capital punishment is very expensive for our state, and we have to find the best use of taxpayer dollars and prosecutorial resources. How many other murders and violent crimes cases could be prosecuted with the resources from one death penalty case?"

WORTH PRESERVING

Many state-initiated analyses--including reports from Michigan, New Mexico and South Dakota--have found administering capital punishment is significantly more expensive than housing prisoners for life without parole.

A study released last month found California has spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment since 1978, executing 13 criminals. That's about $184 million more a year than life sentences would have cost.

Much of the cost results from litigating numerous appeals during the convict's time on death row, where the average inmate spends 13 years prior to execution.

This lengthy process also influenced Bateman's decision to sponsor an abolishment bill. "I spoke to many families who went through trying emotional times during the appeals for death row inmates," he says. "Transferring an inmate from death row to life without parole allows for the aggrieved families to have a sense of calmness in their life without having to relive the tragic events over and over again."

Many believe, however, the punishment is worth preserving even though it is expensive, if it can be made more manageable.

Illinois suspended capital punishment for 11 years before abolishing it in March 2011. …

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