Economics of Death Penalty



o Capital Punishment

A lot of controversies over the years have been going on for and against the topic of capital punishment. The history of the putting people to death more commonly known as capital punishment is as old as the country itself or probably more older. In the old days, people were executed through stoning, crucifixion, burning at stake (which was common for the people who were declared witches) and so on. But what kinds of capital punishment or death sentences are given in this modern era? Is it the same as the old ones? The answer is no. In today’s time capital punishments include injection or lethal gas, hanging, electrocution or shooting.

In the modern times, the world is divided in half as to countries that use capital punishment and countries that do not. Many nations including some of the developing nations have abolished the system of death penalty by any means or methods described above. One country where it would be greatly expected that this system does not operate is the United States of America (USA). Unlike other industrialized nations, some states of the US have capital punishment or death sentence system still intact. The above graph shows the increase and decrease in the execution during periods of 1930 to 2004. If the western part of the globe is reviewed, it would be seen that US is the only western country where death sentences are executed. The executions in the country are linked to the legal system of the country which is considered to one of the most developed systems in the world due to its characterization for respect of human rights (Zimring, 2000).

According to article by Zimring published in the MSN Encarta, the practice of death penalty and laws regarding it vary between the states of US. Almost 12 states do not have death penalty but do have life imprisonment laws. This life imprisonment can sometimes be without parole. The rest of the states have different death penalty laws for different kinds and degrees of offences. About 200 to 300 criminals and prisoners are sentenced to death.

The use of death penalty as a punishment rose to its heights when the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Since then more than 600 executions have place in US. The graph taken from shows the death penalty status in US since 1976. 29 states out of 38 carried out capital executions in the last two decades. The states which did conduct the execution include Louisiana, Florida, Missouri, Virginia, Georgia, Utah, Texas and many more (Zimring, 2000). If the graph is looked at more closely, it can be seen that executions are concentrated in the southern part of US.

o Life Imprisonment with No Parole

The history of life imprisonment is associated with an American case in the time of President Fillmore. The case is of Ex Parte Wells. This case has been taken from Wikipedia. The person Wells was convicted of a murder and was sentenced to be hanged in 1951. President Fillmore gave Wells a conditional pardon and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Thus the term ‘life imprisonment’ was coined in 1987.

According to the New York Times study undertaken by Adam Liptak, it was found that almost 10% of the prisoners in the US that is almost 132,000 prisoners are serving life sentences. Out of the 10%, almost 28% of these prisoners are sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The increase in the life imprisonment has increased by 8% since 1993 when the New York Times had undertook a study and found that the prisoners without parole were 20%.


The crime rate in Utah is the lowest crime rate in US and is ranked at the 8th place. The state has a crime rate of 236.9 per 100,000 populations. The state’s violent crime rate has been growing lower than the national average. Since a peak in violent crimes in 1997, the violent crime rate in Utah has fallen 29.1%. (Jared, Utah’s Crime Rate).


Utah has managed to keep its crime rate down due to a provision for execution. The methods of execution in Utah have changed over time. In the past capital punishment was carried out by means of beheading, hanging or firing squad. Although the punishment of beheading was never used it was still in the provisions till 1888. In around 1980, hanging was also eliminated. It was replaced by lethal injection which is another form of capital punishment that is being used widely (Gillespie, Capital Punishment in Utah)

Till this date, Utah has executed 47 prisoners out of which 39 were executed through firing squad, six by hanging and the last two by lethal injection. The following table has been taken from Wikipedia and shows the death penalty and methods through which a few of the prisoners were executed.

A little account of the executions that were carried out in the state of Utah is given below:

o Hanging: Two Indians were executed by hanging as they had killed two brothers. Also two other men were executed for killing a gas station employee in 1956. Barton Kirkhamn was the last person who was hanged by the state of Utah in 1958 for killing two people (Gillespie, Capital Punishment in Utah).

o Firing Squad: The first person to be executed after ten years of moratorium was Gary Gilmore in 1977. He was executed through firing squad for killing two young men in the state (Gillespie, Capital Punishment in Utah)

o Lethal Injection: The use of lethal injection in Utah began with the death of Pierre Dale in 1987 as he had killed three people and was the second black that was executed in Utah. Lethal injection was also the fate of two Hispanics and Indians while the rest of the prisoners executed by this method were white (Gillespie, Capital Punishment in Utah).

The state of Utah has an unusual provision that sets it apart from other states in the matters of execution. The state allows the prisoner or the convicted to choose which method of execution he/she would prefer. For example choice is given between squad firing and lethal injection. If the convicted doesn’t choose, then he/ she are executed by lethal injection. (Gillespie, Capital Punishment in Utah).


The crime in Utah is divided into three categories. These are

1. Felonies:

According to the law, felony can be punished by imprisonment or fine. A table shows the different categories of felony and its punishment (Criminal Penalties, 2008). In the below table capital means motivated murder whereas the rest represent different crimes.

2. Misdemeanors:

According to the Utah State Law, a misdemeanor is an offense that is lower than a felony and a person involved in any misdemeanor can be punished by a county jail up to 1 year and/ or a fine (Criminal Penalties, 2008).

3. Infractions:

It is a minor offense that is punishable by a fine only, up to $750 like city traffic violations and some disorderly conduct offenses (Criminal Penalties, 2008).

The death sentence rates in Utah have declined since the state passed a life without- parole statute in 1992. The option of life imprisonment without parole is a helpful option for the prosecutors of Utah as they can convict a person to imprisonment rather than death penalty. According to the data in 2006, 22 prisoners in Utah are serving life imprisonment without parole and 9 are on death row (Life without Parole..,2006).


There are a lot studies and research that have been undertaken by different institutions and individual person regarding the cost effectiveness of capital punishment and life imprisonment. It is almost impossible to put a finger on the exact cost of execution of either life imprisonment without parole or capital punishment. Some of the death sentences are carried out quickly which are cost-effective but others are not. Similar is the case of life imprisonment. It has been widely argued that death penalty is more expensive than the life imprisonment and vice versa. The argument rises because it is believed that it is expensive to retain and look after the prisoner sentenced for life imprisonment than executing that convict. It is a very rational assumption because if a person is sentenced to life imprisonment then the costs related to the needs of the convicted would be high as the convicted will be living almost his whole life there.

Cost of Life Imprisonment without Parole

According to research conducted by the member of the Legislative Research Council, Annie Mertz, the cost of imprisonment is very high. The cost of imprisonment without parole includes the following variables:

o Construction

o Financing

o Operation costs for maximum cell security

According to Mertz, the annual costs of building and operating a maximum security cell is $5000 whereas the maintenance cost is about $20,000 annually. If the average age of a few convicted is taken into account the total cost for life imprisonment per person would be around $750,000 to $1.1 million (Mertz, 2006). Another research indicates that the life imprisonment which on the average is of about 30 to 40 years, the average cost per person is $50,000 (Pro Death Penalty Webpage). Another research was undertaken by the TIME magazine in December 1995. The research indicated that average cell cost amounted to $ 24,000 per year and the maximum security cost was $75,000 per year for the nation as a whole.

Cost of Capital Punishment

It is widely argued and claimed that cost of capital punishment is much higher than the cost of life imprisonment. It is costly for the state or the country to execute a convicted than to imprison him. Capital punishment cases are complex and require more attention. A study shows that the taxpayer could save $90 million each year by eliminating the capital punishment in the state of California. During 1977 to 1996, five criminals execution cost the state more than $1 billion. Also the Department of Correctional Services in New York calculated that it would cost $118 million if death penalty was reinstated (Facts about Death Penalty).

The reason that death penalty is so costly is due to the legal proceedings of the case. Capital punishment trials are expensive as they take longer time to reach a verdict. The use of pre-trial motions, investigations by expert witnesses, and selection of two juries- one for guilt and one for sentencing- adds heavy expenditure in the account of capital punishment cases. These are just the costs before the process of appeal. If there is no guilty plea and the verdict goes in the favor of life imprisonment, the state pays the cost of the trial as well as the cost of life imprisonment (Mertz, 1999). The costly, time consuming, controversial and devastating process of capital punishment drains the criminal justice system of necessary resources that it could otherwise use to meet its goals.

Comparison between Cost of Life Imprisonment and Capital Punishment

The cost of imprisonment is expensive but in comparison to the cost of capital punishment it is less expensive. According to the Justice for All, imprisonment without parole will cost $1.2 million – $3.6 million more than equivalent death penalty. The Pro Death Penalty Webpage argues that the cost comparisons of both the punishment should be carried out if capital punishment equivalent life imprisonment cases are taken into consideration. According to the above assumption the following statistics table taken from Death Penalty Paper (Sharp, 1997):

The cost of the capital punishment increases annually based on the following variables:

1. Increase in prison costs

2. National inflation rate

3. Medical costs

4. Prison violence can cause injury or death as the criminals with death row have nothing to lose may increase the probability of violence.

5. Risk of escape by the convicts

6. Prisoners can be released governors, parole boards and judges.

According to an anti-death penalty website, a capital punishment costs $2.3 million which is about three times more than the cost of imprisonment for 40 years. Therefore it can be inferred that life without parole will cost $766, 666. The Death Penalty Information Center has stated that: “The costs of trials and appeals for death penalty cases are twenty-one times that of a life in prison without parole case.”

o Costs until Now:

Until now, the life without parole has a cost of $70, 000 and the death penalty has a cost of $1,470,000. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has concluded that to imprison one convict it costs $27, 025 annually. The breakdown of this cost is given in the table below:

Facility Operations

$22,650 per year

Medical Care, Food and Utilities

$4,375 per year

The Bureau of Justice has calculated the cost of imprisonment taking into account all the variables that might impact the cost. This is calculated as follows:

“Take $27,025; multiply it by 40 years and factor in an increase of 3% each year. This yields that the cost to incarcerate one inmate serving a sentence of life without parole amounts to $2,187,007.19. We can now compare this to the amount required to incarcerate a death row inmate. presents the statistic that the average time an inmate spends on death row is eleven years. Now, take $27,025; multiply it by 11 years and factor in an increase of 3% each year, which yields an amount of $393,923.52” (Voice of Liberty, 2008).

o Cost of trial, appeals, and incarceration:

The cost of trial, appeal and incarceration for life without parole is much higher than capital punishment. The cost according to a web post by Voice of Liberty has written that the capital punishment is $1,863,923 and imprisonment is $2,257,007. The high cost of life imprisonment is due to the requirement of additional medical care which arises because of diseases like HIV, Hepatitis C among the convicts. Also the geriatric care of the convicts is costly.

If the above information is kept in view, it can be analyzed that the claims of capital punishment being costly than imprisonment are a bit hazy. Sometimes the politics involved also manipulate the statistics so the policies can be changed.


No matter which form of punishment is highly expensive, the cost of both the punishments is being bear by the government due to which the citizens suffer. Due to recession in the country in1992, police were being laid off and prisoners were released early due to which the crime rate continued to rise. Due to the recession in the country, cutbacks in the backbone of criminal judicial system were caused. For example, 3000 prisoners were released early in 1992 due to budget crisis. Prisoners are serving 20% of their total time in Texas during the 1992. New Jersey laid off 500 officers while Georgia laid off 900 correctional personnel (Dieter, 1992).

Today, many states are hammering millions and thousands of dollars in punishment like death penalty and still no reduction in crime has been seen. The high and expensive capital punishment costs are bad as the resources both legal and financial are being diverted from making effective crime policies and strategies. For example, in 1992 California was spending almost $90 million on capital punishment due to which it did not have enough money developing crime strategies. The infamous state of Texas where the crime rate or most notably the murder rate is the highest in country is spending almost $2.3 million per case and has more than 300 people on death row (Dieter, 1992).

Politicians and Death Penalty

Death penalty is the weapon of the politicians through which they can make themselves stronger than the opponents by masking it as the only solution to reduce crime. It is a trend that whether they are politicians, prosecutors or presidents, each have chosen some form of statement or symbol that can relate to support of death penalty. If death penalty becomes the most common form punishment, a single trial of it can result in bankruptcy, increase in taxes and laying off government personnel. According to the statistics, a trial can cost small country $100,000 from their unbudgeted funds. Politicians wage their campaigns on the symbols of death penalty without analyzing the cost-benefit analysis for the people. What the citizens do not know is that the cost benefit analysis of the death penalty is shadowed and other programs are being deprived of the needed resources. Crime prevention is one department that is being deprived of the funds with the expansion of the death penalty (Dieter, 1992).

Expenditure by Justice Function:

According to the statistics from the Bureau of Justices, the above graph shows the how much is being spent or how much is direct expenditure by the criminal justice function that includes Judicial, Police and Corrections. The graph shows that the expenditure has constantly increased since 1982 to 2004. Almost 474% change was in judicial expenditure whereas the highest change in expenditure is being noted in the corrections with 613% change from 1982 to 2005. According to Bureau of Justice the Federal, State, and local governments had spent around $204 billion for police protection, corrections and judicial and legal activities. The per capita expense for all the three governments and criminal justice function was approximately $600. In 2005 State and local governments spent a combined 83% of all direct justice dollars; where as the remaining 17% was spent by the Federal Government. Almost $35 billion was spent by the federal government on direct expenditures for criminal and justice in 2005. In contrast, state government and local government had spent $65 billion and $104 billion respectively.

Cost to Governments:

The governments on all levels that are local, state and federal are under the financial pressure do to the increase in the capital punishment. Governments are do not finance just one department (namely capital punishment) but have to finance and look after departments like health and human services and other institutions in the public sectors. Government has made some really hard choices between the demands of providing the essential services related to keeping the citizens safe and the pursuit of expanding capital punishment.

The graph on the right has been taken from the Bureau of Justices which shows the increasing amounts of government expenditure on the death penalty and life imprisonment. The expenditure of the local government has increased by 396% from 1982 to 2005 amounting to more than $100 Billion. The state government’s expenditure has increased by 510% amounting to more than $60 billion. Whereas, the expenditure made by the federal government has been the greatest from 1982 to 2005 by the change of 730% (in amounts less than $10 billion to increase to almost $40 billion).

There are many different states in the country that complain about the budget drain due to costs of capital punishment. Some states are also on the state of bankruptcy as they cannot require the cost invested in the cases of capital punishment. In order to pay back the amount, taxes have also being increased. Below are some states and their expenditure on capital punishment.

o Utah: Utah became the first state to create a risk pool for funding the death penalty cases in 1997.

o California: By 1992, the state of California was spending $10 million each year to compensate different investigators, witnesses and capital punishment costs to small counties in the state. In addition to the $10 million, the state also pays $2 million to pay for the murder trial costs. A study shows that the capital punishment expense for this state is $1 billion since 1977 (Dieter, 1992).

o Mississippi: In the Jasper County, in order to raise money for the expense of capital punishment, county taxes were raised to a significant amount (Dieter, 1992).

o Connecticut: The Connecticut Law Tribune had reported that the costs of capital punishment in the state were high even though not many prisoners are on a death row (Dieter, 1992).

o North Carolina: The death penalty costs in this state were $2.16 million per execution as compared to life imprisonment. The capital punishment amounted to $4 million per year. Governors spent 60 hours whereas attorneys spent 600 hours on a single case (High Cost of Death Penalty)

o Florida: The state of Florida spends around $51 million a year to enforce death penalty. This cost is high as compared to the cost that would be incurred if the state punished convicts with life imprisonment without parole. Florida had almost 44 executions since 1976 to 2000. These executions amounted to $ 24 million per execution whereas in the case of life imprisonment, it would cost $23 million less. (High Cost of Death Penalty)

o Texas: The capital punishment cost is three times higher in this state than the cost of life imprisonment with highest security level. The cost for death trial amounts to $2.3 million (High Cost of Death Penalty).

o New Jersey: The implementation of death penalty system caused an estimated cost of $16 million each year which is almost enough to hire 500 officers with a yearly salary of $30,000.

o Kansas: According to the review conducted in the state of Kansas it was found out that capital punishment cases are 70% more expensive than life imprisonment cases. In addition to this, investigation costs occurred in capital punishment cases is 3 times higher than investigation cost for life imprisonment cases. The trial costs were around $508, 000 per case for death penalty and for imprisonment it was $32,000. Also the appeal cost for death penalty case was 21 times greater. The investigation costs for death-sentence cases were about 3 times greater than for non-death cases.


In terms of costs and economic cost-benefit analysis, life imprisonment serves as a better option than capital punishment. But then again, if it’s between choosing between capital punishment and life imprisonment people have different opinions. According to an opinion poll conducted by Gallup Poll in 2006 it was found that people’s support for death penalty was 65% (down from 80% in 1994). When the same poll was taking again with option of life without parole the result was life without parole (48%) than the death penalty (47%) (Facts about the Death Penalty, 2008).

People against the death penalty claim that life imprisonment without parole serves just like death penalty. But there are many dangers in imprisoning a convict that if the criminal escapes many decent citizens come in danger. Also the prison guards are sometimes killed. Dawud Mu’Min is one such criminal who was serving a life imprisonment sentence escaped and killed a storekeeper in a robbery that amounted to $4. In such case, the state of Virginia executed the criminal in 1997 (Pro Capital Punishment Webpage).

Another flaw in life imprisonment is that it deteriorates with the passing of time. This means that the laws keep changing as the time passes. An example of such kind happened in the state of New York. A criminal named James Moore was guilty of raping and strangling a 14- year old girl and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole as the parents of the girl decided to spare the criminal death penalty. In 1982, the law changed giving Moore parole every two years. If this change in law was known, then the parents of the girl would have never opted for life imprisonment (Pro Capital Punishment Webpage).

Yet another similar case occurred in 1966 in Texas where a person named Kenneth Mc Duff was convicted to death penalty by electrocution for killing two boys and raping and then strangling a girl. After the US Supreme Court banned death sentences, McDuff was imprisoned for life. Then in 1989 was set loose quietly due to the overflowing Texas prisons. After being released, McDuff’s reign of terror began and was one of the America’s Most Wanted. He had killed almost 9 or more females before he was finally captured and sentenced again to death penalty by Lethal Injection. If the first death penalty was undertaken as planned many lives would have been saved (Pro Capital Punishment Webpage).

Robert Dwight Foster of Covington brutally murdered a 5-year-old girl using a steel lug wrench and severely injured her 10-year old brother. The criminal had no remorse against the killings and did not fear any kind of punishment. The only punishment that he will endure is life without parole (Wooten, 2007). Another similar case where the punishment should have been capital death was given life without parole. The torture endured by 13-year-old at the hands of a gang commanded by Ahmond Dunnigan was very awful. When this case is spoken of it is linked with the immorality of the genocide directed at the Jews by the Nazis. Life without parole is no deterrent to people such as Dunnigan. (Wooten, 2007)

As it can be analyzed from the above mentioned cases especially the McDuff case, there is no better substitute for punishing criminals other than capital punishment. This way the convicted person can never kill anyone else and doesn’t get a chance to repeat his crime. The above cases clearly represent that capital punishment is the best alternative for murders and other crimes. But the question that arises here is whether capital punishment should be given if a person hasn’t committed any murder. The following case highlights the negativity of the death penalty punishment.

This case is related to the state of Utah where a death penalty was sentenced on the basis of racial biasness. William Andrews was an African- American was guilty of burglary of a hi-fi store and murder of three people which he never actually did. He became the first person in the state who had received a death penalty for not actually killing anyone. This was the first racial injustice that was done in the Utah. The jury was predominantly Mormon jury when it was preached that the blacks are inferior to the whites. (Utah Shows Death Penalty’s Racism)

How does the above case stack up against the capital punishment? In many cases life imprisonment is a better option rather than sentencing an innocent to death.


Despite the pros of capital punishment a lot of question has arisen on the issues such as whether or not capital punishment is an effective deterrent or not in respect of other punishments namely life imprisonment without parole. A survey was undertaken by Gallup Poll of the many known and experts of criminological societies. The graph shows that 84% of the experts reviewed rejected the statement that death penalty acts as deterrent (Facts about the Death Penalty, 2008).

Another graph (below) taken from Death Penalty Information Center reports that murder rates are high in the states the have death penalty or capital punishment. In contrast the states with non-death penalty have low murder rates. Studies have made to research this phenomenon but still no empirical evidence has been found.

According to a research conducted by Donnohue and Wolfers in 2006, they concluded that many researches and statistics that claim of death penalty saving numerous lives might not be credible. If the same data which predict less murder rate due to death penalty deterrence and proper methodology is used, then the results will be opposite like the above graph depicts the situation.

If one criminal is being executed, it would cause other criminals and people to hold them back from doing such a crime that might result is loss of their lives. The fear of losing life combined with death penalty is deterrence in itself. On the contrary to the above graphs and research the following graph from the Bureau of Criminal Justice portrays that the death penalty does cause deterrence among the employees. This graph contradicts the above poll and proves that death penalty can serve as an effective deterrent. This is due to the statistics from the graph which shows that when the execution rate had fallen, murders had increased and vice versa.

Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury released a report in which it said that the death penalty was not effective as costly it was. The following findings were concluded (Financial Facts):

o In Tennessee death penalty trials cost was 48% higher than life imprisonment cost trials.

o Tennessee District Attorneys General is not consistent in their pursuit of the death penalty.

o Surveys and interviews of district attorneys indicate that some prosecutors “use the death penalty as a ‘bargaining chip’ to secure plea bargains for lesser sentences.”

o Previous research provides no clear indication whether the death penalty acts as a method of crime prevention.

o The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed 29 percent of capital cases on direct appeal.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, death penalty does not induce deterrence. Instead it is a barbaric practice that is not administered fairly. Many factors influence the imposition of capital punishment. These include defendant’s race, ethnicity, geographic location and economic status. In an article namely ‘The Death Penalty: Teacher Edition’ it is said that death penalty does cause deterrence among the criminals. The article cites: ”

“Ernest van den Haag, a Professor of Jurisprudence at Fordham University who has studied the question of deterrence closely, wrote: “Even though statistical demonstrations are not conclusive, and perhaps cannot be, capital punishment is likely to deter more than other punishments because people fear death more than anything else. They fear most death deliberately inflicted by law and scheduled by the courts. Whatever people fear most is likely to deter most. Hence, the threat of the death penalty may deter some murderers who otherwise might not have been deterred. And surely the death penalty is the only penalty that could deter prisoners already serving a life sentence and tempted to kill a guard, or offenders about to be arrested and facing a life sentence.”

If a general opinion of the people of US is taken into account as well as the studies for and against whether capital punishment is deterrent or not a clear answer can never be obtained. The effect of deterrence can vary from a criminal to criminal.


It is impossible to say if life imprisonment can be a source of deterrence in contrast to capital punishment. Like said before, the effect of deterrence depends on the behavior and thinking of each person. Life imprisonment does induce deter to an extent. The concept of being retained for the rest of the life in a prison is little crueler than capital punishment. Also if a person has been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, it becomes undeserved after some years. Suppose a person has being convicted of one murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Do you think it is fair? This concept of punishment can cause deterrence among the criminals.


Capital Punishment and life imprisonment without parole are some of the harsh punishments that the US government follows. Many states in the country are aggressively pursuing the capital punishment strategy without thinking about the high cost that is related to each trial. Death penalty should be there as an option but should be followed often. Life imprisonment on the other hand is a good option because it is cost effective. But to create deterrence among the criminals capital punishment is a better option than life imprisonment without parole. All in all, if vicious murderers are to be stopped from creating an insecure society and harming the citizens, death penalty is the only solution. Although it is very expensive and takes years to a formal verdict, different states would have to shift the resources that they could use in other institutions to make the system of death penalty stronger.


Dieter, Richard. (October, 1992). Millions Misspent: What Politicians Don’t Say About the High Costs of the Death Penalty. Revised Fall 1994. Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved on August 19, 2008 from

Donnohue, John and Wolfers, Justin. Death Penalty: No Evidence for Deterrence. April 2006. The Economist. Retrieved on August 19, 2008 from

Gillespie, Kay. Capital Punishment in Utah. Retrieved on August 19, 2008 from

Jared, Cook. Utah’s Crime Rate. Utah’s Homes. Retrieved on August 19, 2008 from

Liptak, Adam. New York Times Series Examines Life Sentences .October 2, 2005. New York Times. Retrieved on August 19, 2008 from