« Heller and the Second Amendment stir up controversy | Main | "Nearly 500 teens serving life terms in Pa. prisons" »

September 28, 2008

Making an economic case against the death penalty

This op-ed from a local paper in Califorinia, headlined "Price isn't right for the death penalty," makes a economic pitch against the use of the death penalty.  Here are excerpts:

As the country's economic woes continue to mount, frightening many Americans, it has become clear that the United States simply cannot afford capital punishment. The death penalty is the revenue-guzzling SUV to the cost-efficient hybrid of life without parole. Researchers all over the country are crunching the numbers and coming to the same conclusion — the death penalty is far too expensive.

In its recently released report, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice found that California's current death penalty system costs $137 million annually compared with $11.5 million for a system without the death penalty. The commission also reported that California's system is "dysfunctional" and that it will cost an additional $200 million a year to fix it....

In Maryland, the Urban Institute study of March 2008 noted that it costs the state three times more to try a death penalty case than a non-death penalty case.... A 2004 study in Tennessee said the findings were the same.  Capital trials cost almost 50 percent more than trials where life without parole is sought.  Similar findings have been made in Washington, North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, Kansas and Texas.

The death penalty is a failed government program for many reasons.  One is that it is a colossal waste of government resources. Since 1977 we've carried out over 1,100 executions in this country to the tune of what is conservatively estimated over $1 billion.  We would have been far wiser using this money to meet our many pressing needs, such as improving our schools, building safer communities, fixing our deteriorating infrastructures, shoring up our social security system, providing health insurance for children, etc....

Many [of the more than 3000 death row] prisoners will die of natural causes before they can be executed. It would be far cheaper to commute these sentences to life without parole than to continue this failed policy of state killing....  The death penalty is a bankrupting policy. Let's abolish it.

I have long thought that the economic case against the death penalty is the strongest and also one that ought to appeal to both sides of the political ailse.  Put simply, there is an extraordinary amount of big government bureaucracy that surrounds each and every capital case.  Though some will argue that the psychic benefits of capital punishment outweigh the real economic costs of running the system, few can make a strong claim that modern capital punishment schemes are either efficient or effective from an economic perspective.

Unfortunately, this op-ed makes the tired liberal pitch that the money now spent on the death penalty could be used for other social programs.  I think a more effective pitch would be to say that the money now spent on the death penalty could and should be used on other more efficient and effective means of saving innocent lives by, e.g., by putting more resources into reducing drunk driving and other avoidable traffic deaths, by improving funding for urban police forces to better deal with violence on the streets, by being more willing to invest in crime-fighting innovations (like GPS tracking, perhaps) that can help monitor and control those offenders in the community most likely to commit violent crimes.

Some related posts:

September 28, 2008 at 12:02 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Making an economic case against the death penalty:

» Blog Scan from Crime and Consequences
Supreme Court's Opening Conference: SCOTUSblog posted yesterday on the Court's upcoming week. The Supremes will hold their opening conference today, and are scheduled to review a petition for rehearing in Kennedy v. Louisiana. SCOTUSblog expects the Co... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 29, 2008 2:48:15 PM


Doug wrote: "Unfortunately, this op-ed makes the tired liberal pitch that the money now spent on the death penalty could be used for other social programs. I think a more effective pitch would be to say that the money now spent on the death penalty could and should be used on other more efficient and effective means of saving innocent lives..."

Spending money on social programs (e.g., health care, education, housing) would be the most efficient and effective means of saving "innocent" (whatever that means) lives. Your suggestions are socially irresponsible and wasteful; they do not in any way address the social dysfunctions that cause crime and antisocial behavior nor do they advance or improve the well-being of community members. You may as well burn that money.

Posted by: DK | Sep 28, 2008 9:36:01 PM

What evidence do you have, DK, that money spent on certain social programs effectively combats "the social dysfunctions that cause crime and antisocial behavior"? I share you instinct that money smartly spent on social programs can help reduce crime, but I am not sure there is the social science evidence to back up these instincts.

There is good social science evidence that level of education achieved correlates with criminality. Therefore, if we could spend money on keep people in school, that may be the very best crime-fighting investment we could make.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 29, 2008 6:52:23 AM

Regarding costs:

The Urban Institute's Maryland cost analysis wrongly credited plea bargains to a life sentence to the life sentence ledger, when the plea must be credited to the death penalty, because such plea bargains can exist only when the death penalty is an option. There were other issues, as well. When corrected, this may culminate in a death sentence being cheaper than life without parole.

The NJ Death Penalty Commission concluded that they the death penalty was more expensive, but that they couldn't properly evaluate costs. Hmm.
See cost analysis at NJ Death Penalty Commission Made Significant Errors July 5, 2007 , at paragraph 2 on page 2

Generally, most of the other cost studies have one or more of the following problems.
1) Most studies exclude the cost of geriatric care, recently found to be $60,000-$80,000/inmate/yr. A significant omission from life sentence costs.
2) All studies exclude the cost savings of the death penalty, which is the ONLY sentence which allows for a plea bargain to a maximum life sentence. Such plea bargains accrue as a cost benefit to the death penalty, estimated at $500,000 to $1 million, the cost of trials and appeals for every such plea bargain, See Maryland, above.
This MIGHT result in a minimal cost differential between the two sanctions or an actual net cost benefit to the death penalty, depending upon how many LWOP cases are plea bargained and how many death penalty cases result in a death sentence.
3) FCC economist Dr. Paul Zimmerman finds " ... it is estimated that each state execution deters somewhere between 3 and 25 murders per year (14 being the average). Assuming that the value of human life is approximately $5 million {i.e. the average of the range estimates provided by Viscussi (1993)}, our estimates imply that society avoids losing approximately $70 million per year on average at the current rate of execution all else equal." (1) 15 additional recent studies, inclusive of their defenses, support the deterrent effect. No cost study has included such calculations.
Although we find it inappropriate to put a dollar value on life, evidently this is not uncommon for economists, insurers, etc.
We know that living murderers are infinitely more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers. There is no doubt that executions do save innocent lives. What value do you put on the lives saved? Certainly not less than $5 million. "State Executions, Deterrence and the Incidence of Murder", Paul R. Zimmerman (zimmy@att.net), 3/3/03, Social Science Research Network, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/delivery.cfm/SSRN... ?
4) a) Some studies compare the cost of a death penalty case, including pre trial, trial, appeals and incarceration, to only the cost of incarceration for 40 years, excluding all trial costs and appeals, for a life sentence. The much cited Texas "study" does this. Hardly an apples to apples cost comparison.
b) The pure deception in some cost "studies" is overt. It has been claimed that it costs $3.2 million/execution in Florida. That "study" decided to add the cost of the entire death penalty system in Florida ($57 million), which included all of the death penalty cases and dividing that number by only the number of executions (18). One could just have easily stated that the cost of the estimated 200 death row inmates was $285,000 per case.
5) All death penalty appeals, direct and writ, should travel through the process concurrently, giving every appellate issue 7 years of consideration through state and federal courts. There is no need for repetition and delay. This would result in a significant cost reductions.
6) No state, concerned with justice, will base a decision on cost alone. If they did, all cases would be plea bargained for probation.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Sep 29, 2008 8:52:25 AM

Mr. Payden-Travers screwed up the math on this, substantially.

Approximately, 8000 folks have been sentenced to death row soince, 1973. Of those, possibly 25 actual innocents have been discovered and removed from death row. The anti death penalty claims that the number of exonerated is 129 is a blatant deception, easily revealed with fact checking.

Therefore, it is 1 out of 320 convictions which result in actual innocent sent to death row, or about 0.3%.

All of those have been released, meaning that the error rate for the actual innocents executed is 0%.

Of all the government programs in the world, that put innocents at risk, is there one with a safer record and with greater protections than the US death penalty?


Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Sep 29, 2008 8:53:23 AM


I posted a response to your comment but your spam program blocked it (presumably because of the hyperlinks).

Posted by: DK | Sep 29, 2008 11:12:42 PM

Dudley Sharp wrote: "Of all the government programs in the world, that put innocents at risk, is there one with a safer record and with greater protections than the US death penalty?"

With the exception of the US military, yes. All of them. Other than the military, are you suggesting there are US government programs that kill innocent people? You're a fucking whackjob, Dudley, and you'll go down with all the Hoover robber barons of our generation exactly as such.

Posted by: DK | Sep 29, 2008 11:16:14 PM

"The anti death penalty claims that the number of exonerated is 129 is a blatant deception, easily revealed with fact checking."

Then reveal it.

Posted by: | Sep 30, 2008 12:21:02 AM

38 yr old Steelworker.

You have got to be kidding me. We should provide for those too lazy to earn their own living in hopes they won't commit crimes against us?

I've a better idea. For everyone who kills someone who isn't threatening them, their family or property, hang them. Everyone who forcibly rapes another, or touches a child under 14, and enters another's home to harm or rob the owners should hang also.

That means a night in prayer, and hanged the next morning, no lingering for years in prison.

Hanging has always been the punishment (until modern times) for traditional acts of banditry. That would beyond all question dissuade others from committing crimes.

If it makes you feel better, even the bible prescribes penalties for these acts, and demands that we not allow criminals to be amongst us.

Posted by: Mike | Oct 1, 2008 5:02:55 AM

Mike wrote: "You have got to be kidding me. We should provide for those too lazy to earn their own living in hopes they won't commit crimes against us?"

No. We should provide basic necessities for everyone, regardless of whether they are too lazy to earn their own living, because it's the right thing to do and it is what people who love their fellow countrymen would do (those who hate their country, of course, would be opposed). If it helps, see Jesus the Christ.

This will have the incidental effect of reducing crime to near nil. As a steelworker, you may or may not have noticed that the laziest people are the most "successful." They are your bosses and the executives of your company. Sure, they may run around and talk on their cell phones a lot. But that isn't work. They produce nothing. Yet they get everything.

Most people want to work and will work provided that there is a point to working. Working a minimum wage shit job just to be unable to pay your rent in a substandard unit at the end of the month is not worth doing. Any dolt can see that. I sure as hell wouldn't do it. You may be happy to be taken advantage of by more powerful forces; not all of us are.

Posted by: DK | Oct 1, 2008 9:43:13 PM

thanks for the info


Posted by: kittyidea | Nov 13, 2008 7:33:19 PM


Sorry just saw your response.

Government programs:

highway supervison, including licencing of drivers
public swimming pools
etc., etc.,
anything requiring any governemtn suprervision or oversight, where innocents are put at risk.

Not one has a safer record than the US death penalty, with no proven case of an innocent executed, at least since 1900.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Aug 13, 2009 6:50:07 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB