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September 28, 2009

NY Times editorial assails "High Cost of Death Row"

Today's New York Times has this editorial contending that the high costs of the death penalty ought to lead cash-strapped states to move away from capital punishment.  Here are excerpts from a piece headlined "High Cost of Death Row":

To the many excellent reasons to abolish the death penalty — it’s immoral, does not deter murder and affects minorities disproportionately — we can add one more.  It’s an economic drain on governments with already badly depleted budgets.

It is far from a national trend, but some legislators have begun to have second thoughts about the high cost of death row. Others would do well to consider evidence gathered by the Death Penalty Information Center, a research organization that opposes capital punishment....

According to the organization, keeping inmates on death row in Florida costs taxpayers $51 million a year more than holding them for life without parole.  North Carolina has put 43 people to death since 1976 at $2.16 million per execution.  The eventual cost to taxpayers in Maryland for pursuing capital cases between 1978 and 1999 is estimated to be $186 million for five executions.

Perhaps the most extreme example is California, whose death row costs taxpayers $114 million a year beyond the cost of imprisoning convicts for life.  The state has executed 13 people since 1976 for a total of about $250 million per execution.  This is a state whose prisons are filled to bursting (unconstitutionally so, the courts say) and whose government has imposed doomsday-level cuts to social services, health care, schools and parks.

Money spent on death rows could be spent on police officers, courts, public defenders, legal service agencies and prison cells....

In contrast to some other abolitionist arguments, I am generally drawn to claims that modern capital punishments systems do not produce benefits that justify their economic costs.  But the suggestion that money "spent on death rows" could or should be spent on more "prison cells" reinforces my nagging concern (developed in this Harvard Law & Policy Review article) that the anti-death argument of most abolitionists have a tendency to cotribute to modern mass incarceration.

Some recent related posts on the costs of capital punsihment:

September 28, 2009 at 07:25 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Since the high costs of medical care for aging and/or dying prisoners are draining state budgets, maybe we could tighten up there too.

Since the high costs of bailing out big and dishonest banks are contributing to an unprecedented national debt, let's stop that as well and let the financial system crater if that's what it's going to do.

Since the high costs of compulsory, nationalized health insurance, including for people who decide they don't want or need it, will create a vast new entitlement at precisely the time the Treasury can least afford it, let's just can it for that reason alone.

And of course since running prisons costs a boatload, let's release the inmates, most of whom, we are assured by some quarters, are harmless, non-violent first offenders -- if they're guilty at all. There may be some marginal increase in crime due to recidivism, but it won't be the end of the world.

Anyway, you see how the game goes. Since life is nothing but trade-off's, Program A can ALWAYS be attacked as coming at the expense of Program B. That the NYT pulls this childish stunt is unfortunate, but hardly unexpected.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 28, 2009 8:54:07 PM

"I am generally drawn to claims that modern capital punishments systems do not produce benefits that justify their economic costs."

The lawyer generates massive cost for something that should cost about $10 for a bullet and the time of a hooded police officer to shoot the condemned at close range in the head after the verdict. Then the lawyer argues the benefits do not justify the cost. Unmitigated gall.

The lawyer refuses to acknowledge this general principle of all remedies, the Dose-Response Curve. There is a dose of any remedy that is too low to work. Rare, unpredictable executions are on the too low end of this curve.

There is another dose that is too high and is toxic. In between, a sweet spot of maximal benefit with minimal toxicity has to be found by testing.

When it comes to the death penalty, that is about 10,000 executions a year. That assumes no deterrence and totally depends on the attrition of the ultraviolent male birth cohort, and a female cohort about half its size. It could cut crime by 90% solely ridding us of the person, with no effect of intimidation of the bad guys.

We are 17,000 executions behind. These are clustered into black areas by the racist lawyer hierarchy, with blacks carrying a 6 fold burden of murder victimization. They have less police protection, the police being deterred by litigation by race whore lawyers. Their victims are undervalued by the court, which refuses to condemn their murderers to death. The excess murder victimization is at least an order of magnitude larger than the lynchings by the KKK, another lawyer and judge founded and led fraternal organization.

The lawyer in pursuit of the rent, is willing to lose all self respect in giving up on morality, knowledge, and racial fairness.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 28, 2009 8:59:31 PM

I doubt that anyone will change their mind about the death penalty because of the NYT editorial about high DP costs.

About half the cost of operating a prison is for incarceration of persons held less than three years and large fraction of them are there because of a revocation of parole or probation. For the most part these are the people we are mad at. Their most serious charges are a mixture sex crimes, assaults, property, drug and public order offenses. A substantial fraction of those held less then three years have been in prison on one or more prior occasions. We have devised the most expensive revolving door in history that costs far more than the DP litigation costs

The prisoners we have good reason to be afraid of are held much longer and they are not good risks for parole. Interestingly some of the LWOP prisoners are not a threat to public safety but that is not why they are in prison.

Posted by: John Neff | Sep 28, 2009 10:39:17 PM

Bill Otis, the fact that we do other things that are inefficient is no reason to keep the death penalty. We should keep it (if we do) because we need it, not because other programs are even worse.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Sep 29, 2009 8:58:46 AM

Further, you have to consider that the death penalty is a policy choice, to which there is an effective and less expensive alternative. Therefore, the cost - benefit analysis is particularly appropriate. It is no use to say "food is expensive, therefore I will not eat." You can, however, say "lobster is expensive, therefore I will not eat lobster." Perhaps legislatures will look at it and say, from a policy perspective, executing those dozen or so people is more important that keeping schools open and police on the streets. I think the people that elected them should be well informed of the choices they make.

Posted by: Talitha | Sep 29, 2009 11:25:45 AM

Yes, Mr. Otis, we see how the game goes. Someone makes an argument against the death penalty, and you make a straw man out of it and knock it down.

The point of the editorial is that money spent on the death penalty can be better spent elsewhere without any great harm to society. Shifting funds from the death penalty to more pressing social needs would actually result in a net benefit to society.

But money spent to provide basic medical care, to keep our financial system from collapsing, and to house prisoners is NOT better spent elsewhere. You are making a false comparison.

Posted by: William O. Rights | Sep 29, 2009 12:53:34 PM

Marc Shepherd --

"[T]he fact that we do other things that are inefficient is no reason to keep the death penalty."

It is, however, a reason to question those who want to take on only one of the putatively inefficient items while saying not a peep about the other, far more expensive ones.

"We should keep it (if we do) because we need it, not because other programs are even worse."

We should keep it if is (1) just and (2) consistent with the Constitution. The public overwhelmingly believes (1), and for more than 30 years the Supreme Court has held (2).

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 29, 2009 6:19:31 PM

Talitha --

"Further, you have to consider that the death penalty is a policy choice, to which there is an effective and less expensive alternative."

What do you mean by "effective" and what is the argument that these alternatives are in fact more "effective"? According to the most recent Gallup poll on the question, roughly half the country thinks the DP is not imposed enough, and another quarter thinks it's imposed about the right amount. That would seem inconsistent with the claim that your unnamed alternative is viewed by the electorate as equally "effective."

"Therefore, the cost - benefit analysis is particularly appropriate."

Only if you can quantify the benefit of society's maintaining the moral confidence to declare that, in the most extreme and brutal cases, it has the right to exact death as a punishment, as it has in this country for over 200 years, and as President Obama has said he would continue to do in such cases.


Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 29, 2009 6:33:37 PM

I assume that Talitha's unnamed alternative was LWOP, which is exactly as effective as the death penalty at specific deterrence, at a greatly reduced cost.

Also, I would hate to think that you are using polls to determine whether the death penalty is "effective." A recent poll revealed that a greater percentage of respondents believed in angels than in the theory of evolution, so I wouldn;t bse my findings of effectiveness on polls.

Posted by: Anonyclause | Sep 29, 2009 6:54:42 PM

William O. Rights --

"The point of the editorial is that money spent on the death penalty can be better spent elsewhere without any great harm to society."

Such anyway is the view of the NYT. But not everyone is so morally blase' as to think that there will be no "great harm to society" if, as a result of huckstering by killers and those paid to speak for them, we surrender, NO MATTER WHAT THE CRIME, a punishment that has been endorsed by, inter alia, Sandra Day O'Connor, Lewis Powell, Felix Frankfurter and many other jurists, not to mention both endorsed AND USED by Abraham Lincoln, FDR, Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton.

Are all those people barbarians?

"Shifting funds from the death penalty to more pressing social needs would actually result in a net benefit to society."

That's not an argument, it's a conclusion, and a subjective one at that.

"But money spent to provide basic medical care, to keep our financial system from collapsing, and to house prisoners is NOT better spent elsewhere."

Maybe, but you haven't proved that either, and I'm a good deal less than sure that your allies would agree even if proof (or at least evidence) were offered. Indeed, I have seen time and again on this forum the assertion that much of the money spent housing prisoners most assuredly WOULD be better spent elsewhere, such as in job counseling, mental health services, education, etc., and that spending it on prisons is just turning us into the international disgrace known as "incarceration nation."

Likewise (in a sense) with the bank bailout. It is simply not known whether, absent the bailout, the financial system would have collapsed (whatever "collapsed" actually means), nor is it clear that, even if so, the long term gain would not have been worth it. The bailout was paid for by millions of honest taxpayers to rescue banks which had gotten themselves in trouble by rampant greed and dishonesty. There is a more than credible argument that such behavior should be allowed to take its thoroughly unpleasant course, so that in the future it will be less likely to be repeated.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 29, 2009 6:57:19 PM

Anonyclause --

"I assume that Talitha's unnamed alternative was LWOP, which is exactly as effective as the death penalty at specific deterrence, at a greatly reduced cost."

First, it is not "exactly as effective" as the DP at specific deterrence, since a prisoner housed for decades can kill again, either in prison or as a result of erroneous release or escape (there are numerous instances of both), while an executed prisoner never kills again.

Second, specific deterrence is only one of several measures of a punishment's effectiveness. There is, first and foremost, justice, and most people in this country believe that giving Timmy McVeigh a penalty that is qualitatively identical to the penalty you'd give a meth dealer is grossly unjust. When a person's intentional behavior is wildly and grotesquely outside the most basic norms of society, he has earned something beyond growing old and fat behind bars.

Then there is general deterrence, which, as a raft of recent studies has shown, is better advanced by the DP than by a prison sentence, no matter what its length.


"Also, I would hate to think that you are using polls to determine whether the death penalty is "effective." A recent poll revealed that a greater percentage of respondents believed in angels than in the theory of evolution, so I wouldn;t bse my findings of effectiveness on polls."

The truth of it is that the evaluation of "effectiveness" lies largely in the eyes of the beholder, and polls are a tried and tested method of finding out what the beholders out there are thinking.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 29, 2009 7:38:38 PM

Bill -

Believe whatever you want about polls, but if 51% of Americans believed that praying was more effective for an infection than penicillin, that doesn't make it so, no matter how much you want it to.

I concede that an LWOP prisoner has the ability to kill in prison, while an executed murderer does not. Again, it's all about balancing and making choices about resources.

At one point in history, "justice" meant stoning an adulterer. We've moved beyond that, thankfully. Just because you call something "justice" today doesn't make it just. Most first world countries agree that the death penalty isn't justice.

Posted by: Anonyclause | Sep 29, 2009 8:01:42 PM

Anonyclause --

"Believe whatever you want about polls, but if 51% of Americans believed that praying was more effective for an infection than penicillin, that doesn't make it so, no matter how much you want it to."

The "effectiveness" of prayer versus penicillin can be tested, because there is general agreement about what "effectiveness" means in that context. It means curing the infection. But there is, apparently, no general agreement about what "effectiveness" means in the discussion of the DP. That being the case, polls are one source of useful information, although not conclusive.

"I concede that an LWOP prisoner has the ability to kill in prison, while an executed murderer does not. Again, it's all about balancing and making choices about resources."

Actually, it's about trying to define the elusive "effectiveness." There are at least three criteria one might look to in that regard: specific deterrence, general deterrence, and just punishment. You concede the first of these, and offer no rebuttal to my discussion of the second and third.

"At one point in history, 'justice' meant stoning an adulterer. We've moved beyond that, thankfully."

And at one point in history (between Furman and Gregg) "justice" meant no death penalty no matter how grotesque or sadistic the murders. Through significant judicial and electoral majorities, we've moved beyond that, thankfully.

"Just because you call something 'justice' today doesn't make it just. Most first world countries agree that the death penalty isn't justice."

It's true that most of the rich (and white) countries have dropped the DP, but being rich and white doesn't make one right any more than -- as you have correctly pointed out -- having most respondents in a poll agree with you makes you right.

A number of indisputably advanced countries have the DP. In addition to the United States, there is Japan, South Korea and India (which is poor but has an advanced culture in law, science and medicine, among other things). The great majority of the non-white world retains the DP, in the Orient, the subcontinent, Africa and the Middle East/Islamic states. The fact that the world's white minority sticks its nose up at what is accepted in these other nations doesn't make the white minority racist; indeed it doesn't even make it wrong. But it puts it in a poor position to claim to be the sole Guardian of The Received Wisdom.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 29, 2009 8:49:10 PM

Actually, there is a very simple test for effectiveness - whether the murder rate is lower in states with the death penalty. You'll find that it is higher in DP states. If the purpose of the DP is to reduce the number of murders, then it's not very effective. If the purpose is only to kill people who've already murdered, then it is, indeed, effective. But whether or not that is a noble goal is a philosophical question, not a scientific one.

This argument could obviously go on all night, so there's not really any point in continuing. Yes, it's true that Saudi Arabia has a vibrant and robust death penalty. But that's not exactly the justice system I'd want to model our country's after.

Posted by: Anonyclause | Sep 29, 2009 9:21:14 PM

AC: That does not take into account the dose-response curve of every remedy. Give penicillin for pneumonia, and it is a miracle drug. But give it at one tenth the dose, starting 7 years after the onset of pneumonia, to one tenth of the people with pneumonia, price it at $million, and then give it to 20% of the patients who do not even have pneumonia. Doesn't look that good. That is what the rent seeking lawyer has done to the death penalty. Then they day, the correlations are weak. That is gall.

You have to overcome the very hard outcome that the deceased have a low recidivism rate. Most of the people on death row should have been executed 100's of crime victims ago, for their bad character. The lawyer has granted the criminal near total immunity to commit 100's of crime before anything bad happens. The criminal generates lawyer fees. The crime victim does not, and may rot.

SC

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 30, 2009 1:58:09 PM

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