The Costs of the Death Penalty in the United States
Capital punishment has existed in the US since colonial times. Since then, more than 13,000 people have been legally executed. Today, there are only twelve states which do not have the death penalty: Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin, as well as Washington D.C. The locations of these states are important because they illustrate the lack of ideological homogeneity usually associated with geographical regions of the US. The methods of execution are as varied as their locations. The word “capital” in capital punishment refers to a person’s head, as, historically, execution was performed by cutting off the head. Today, there are generally five methods of execution used in the US. Hanging, the gas chamber, lethal injection, the electric chair and the firing squad are all used, some notably less than others.
In 1930, the Bureau of Justice Statistics began keeping stats on capital punishment nationwide. From 1930 until 1967, 3859 people were executed in the US, 3334 for murder (www. uaa). That’s an average of almost 105 people per year, three out of five of which were executed in the South. By 1967, all but ten states had laws for capital punishment. Nationally, strong pressure was steadily placed on the federal government by those opposed to capital punishment which resulted in an unofficial moratorium on executions until 1976. Officially, the Supreme Court ruled capital punishment unconstitutional in 1972. In Furman v. Georgia,408 U.S. 238 (1972), a 5-4 Supreme Court decision ruled that CP laws in their present form were “arbitrary and capricious” and constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment as well as due process of the Fourteenth Amendment (www.aclu). In its decision, the Court voted that the death penalty statutes were vague and ambiguous, providing little guidance to juries in deciding whether to apply the death penalty. This caused states which still wanted the death penalty to revise their legislation to satisfy the Supreme Court’s objection to the arbitrary nature of execution.
State governments tried two new strategies to be more specific and direct in death penalty trials: guided discretion and the mandatory death penalty. In Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) among others, the Supreme Court gave sentencing courts the right to impose sentences of death for specific crimes and allowed a two-stage (“bifurcated”) trial (www.cpa). In the first stage, the guilt or innocence of the defendant is established, while in the second stage, the jury or the judge (depending on the state) determines the sentence. Mandatory death penalty for specific crimes, on the other hand, was deemed unconstitutional because of cases such as Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976). These rulings lead to the modification of each state’s statutes regarding the death penalty (www.uaa). The moratorium ended and executions resumed in January 1977.
Capital punishment remains, as it ahs always been, controversial and heavily debated on both philosophical (moral) grounds as well as on a strictly financial basis. Both sides, however, seem to be able to crunch the numbers and make their arguments in a way which supports their claims. Today, one of the major points of debate about the death penalty is that of cost. Some of those who support the death penalty defend it as a cost-effective alternative to life in prison. Those who oppose capital punishment conversely say that it costs a significant amount more to kill someone than to incarcerate them for life. What tends to occur is that advocates of the death penalty focus the debate on post trial costs, particularly incarceration, while opponents focus on the trial cost itself. Time Magazine (as of 12/95) found that, nationwide, the average cell cost is $24,000 per year and the average maximum-security cell cost is $75,000 per year (www.prodeathpenalty). Illustrating how statistics are made to fit the agendas, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a leading anti- death penalty organization, claims that, in Texas, a state known for its liberal use of the death penalty, it would cost three times as much to execute someone than to incarcerate them for forty years at the maximum cell cost (www.essential). The DPIC cites a cost of $2.3 million to execute in Texas. $75,000 per year for maximum-security costs multiplied by forty years equals $3.0 million. This use of numbers and math add to the controversy by enabling both sides to give strong, if somewhat wrong, arguments.
Capital trials are much larger, more tedious, and much more expensive at every step than other murder trials. Pretrial motions, expert witness fees, jury selection and the necessity of two trials per Gregg v. Georgia make capital trials extremely costly, even before the appeals process begins. Also, if the person is given a sentence of life in prison, the state pays the cost of the incarceration on top of the expensive trial.
A single trial can mean near bankruptcy, tax increases, and the laying off of personnel such as police officers. New Jersey, for example, laid off more than 500 police officers in 1991 (www.essential). At the same time, it was implementing a death penalty which would cost an estimated $16 million per year, more than enough to have the same number of officers at a salary of $30,000 per year. The irreversibility of the death sentence requires courts to follow heightened due process in the preparation and course of the trial. The death penalty costs California $90 million annually beyond the ordinary costs of the justice system- $78 million of that is incurred at the trial level (www.essential).
The high price of execution is most deeply felt in the counties responsible for both prosecution and defense of capital defendants. For example, Okanogan County Commissioners in Washington delayed pay raises for the county’s 350 employees, decided not to replace 2 of 4 public- health nurses and put a hold on updating computers across the county because of anticipated death penalty trial costs (www.essential). In Imperial County, California, as well as Lincoln County, Georgia, the county commissioners refused to pay the bill for defense costs of men facing the death penalty, citing that the costs would bankrupt the county. Commissioners are more and more frequently sent to jail for failure to pay. Similar to what occurred in New Jersey, in Sierra County, California, authorities had to cut police services to pursue death penalty prosecutions (www.religioustolerance).
Right now, there are more people on death row than at any time in the nation’s history. The number of states having death penalty as an option continues to increase, while the list of states actually carrying out executions has grown to over twenty with four new states added each year. With the enormous costs to try, convict, incarcerate, handle appeals and execute these inmates, many people are searching for alternate means of dealing with these criminals. There are several possible alternatives to the death penalty. Some are taken from current state practices, some from practices used in the international community, and even those once deemed unconstitutional, which may deserve a second look. The first of those alternatives is community policing. Community policing is a strategy for utilizing police officers not just as people who react to crime, but as people who solve problems by becoming an integral part of the neighborhoods they protect. Opponents of capital punishment say that such programs area a cost- effective way to deter crime. The programs work best when governments can afford to add officers, rather than taking from existing numbers, leaving other areas unattended.
Another alternative would be to reinstate the mandatory death sentences for specific crimes, which was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1976. If mandatory minimums and “3 strikes” are constitutional and are used for offenses such as drugs, which are relatively minor to crimes such as murder, than maybe mandatory death sentences should be given a second look. Imposition of the death penalty is extremely rare. Since 1967, there has been one execution for every 1600 murders, or .006%. As the New York Times noted in 1994, even if U. S. executions were multiplied by a factor of 10, the would still constitute an infintesimal element of criminal justice (www.cpa). There have been approximately 500,000 murders and 358 executions from 1967- 1996. Mandatory death sentences would cut down severely on crime and cost.
Mandatory death sentences would be more effective if there was also a limit on the number of appeals which someone on death row was entitled to. The average inmate on death row is there for approximately 10 years (www.prodeathpenalty), racking up countless appeals, which are extremely expensive. These appeals, on top of incarceration costs, make the death penalty as expensive as it is. Although appeals are a mandate for those on death row in order to cut down on the risk of executing the innocent, a limit of perhaps 6 or 7 years should probably do the trick.
The most popular alternative is, morally and financially, is life without parole. This is shown to be cheaper than execution. Although, as previously mentioned, the numbers can be fudged somewhat to attain a certain favorable appearance. In a 1993 survey, it was reported that most Americans would oppose the death penalty if convicted murderers were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole under any conditions. Life without parole is the alternative which is most accepted internationally. Today, either by law or in practice, all of Western Europe and most of the entire world has abolished the death penalty. The United Nations General Assembly wrote a formal resolution calling for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide. Some countries, such as Italy, refuse to extradite accused murderers to the US because of the possibility that they might be executed. Canada’s homicide rate has dropped 27% since they abolished the death penalty in 1976. The international community opposes the United States’ use of execution, especially of those under the age of 18. Only Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the US execute people for crimes committed as a minor. Of these nations, the US has executed more juveniles (9) since 1990 than all the others combined (www.religioustolerance).
At the end of 1997, there were about 3222 prisoners on death row in 34 states (www.essential). Although alternatives for capital punishment are there or could be implemented into legislation, recent laws have expanded the number of crimes for which capital punishment can be applied. Public approval of the death penalty remains high nationwide. The public tends to view execution as a deterrent to crime, whether or not it actually is. This is important because politicians use the death penalty as a symbolic stance for being tough on crime. Capital punishment will continue to be controversial as long as it exists because the very nature of the policy polarizes people’s views and allows for wide interpretation of its legal, moral and financial legitimacy. As public policy, it is constantly being revised, updated and legislated. As is any piece of public policy in the US, there will be no radical change to the process, just slow incremental changes to this controversial issue.
1. American Civil Liberties Union Freedom Network
2. Capital Punishment: Arguments for Life and Death
3. Capital Punishment; the Death Penalty
4. Death Penalty Information Center
5. Death Penalty and Sentencing Information