« Lots of notable sentencing action from the Eighth Circuit | Main | Notable news from the US Sentencing Commission »

January 13, 2009

Making the economic case for "letting go" of the death penalty

This new commentary by Richard Dieter, who is the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, develops an economic case for doing without the death penalty. The piece is titled "Letting Go of the Death Penalty," and here are snippets:

Most states are facing drastic cuts in vital services because of the recession.  Schools, health care, and law enforcement will have to get by with less.  Death penalty cases, however, stand out, demanding more money even as executions become less likely.  In this economic climate, they may be a luxury we can no longer afford....

California, for example, has 670 people on death row.  Each one of them costs the state about $90,000 per year over what it would cost to keep them in prison if they were condemned to permanent imprisonment instead. In total, the state is spending $138 million per year, but only executes less than one person every two years, according to a recent state commission report. In fact, it's been almost three years since the state carried out any executions.  California is now planning a new death row that will cost an additional $400 million. At the same time, the state is facing an unprecedented deficit of billions of dollars and is cutting many vital services.  The state commission called the death penalty system "broken," "dysfunctional," and "close to collapse." Only more expenditures, they said, could possibly save it.

Almost every state is facing a financial crisis and 36 states have the death penalty. In Maryland, a state commission heard testimony that the costs of the death penalty over the past 28 years amounted to $37 million per execution. In Florida, home to the second largest death row in the country, the cost estimates are $24 million per execution....

All of this expense and delay might be justified if there were some tangible benefit resulting from the death penalty.  But for many victims' family members and representatives of law enforcement, the frustration and uncertainty of the death penalty make the option of a sentence of permanent imprisonment more reasonable.  Only about 1% of the murders committed in this country result in a death sentence, and only a small percentage of those sentenced to death are ever executed many years later. Such a system makes little sense financially, or even retributively.

In the past, people were often scared into believing that the death penalty was needed to be tough on crime. Today, the death penalty is more like a bridge to nowhere -- an expensive government program that does not advance the general good. It may be time to let this extravagance go.

As regular readers know, I have long thought that the economic case against the death penalty is among the most potent and most likely to resonnate with those who are otherwise not morally opposed to capital punishment.  As we struggle with tough economic times, it will be interesting to see if and when such arguments start having more practical traction.

Some recent related posts:

January 13, 2009 at 05:50 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Making the economic case for "letting go" of the death penalty:


Some of those "cost studies" don't factor in the savings of guilty pleas in exchange for LWOP sentences, nor do they take into consideration any murders deterred from the equation. Plus, let's face it, the costs of the death penalty are run up by liberal judges. If they didnt blow off AEDPA and if they didn't swallow those BS arguments over LI, we'd have a lot more executions. The delays in Tennessee, for example, are ridiculous. The people want a death penalty, and they have a right to it.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 13, 2009 11:17:45 PM

I don't always agree with federalist but I do here on one point. I think he is right that the cost argument is hypocritical. After all, it is just those who are opposed to the death penalty that are driving up the cost, now they want to turn around and benefit from the situation they have created. I don't think that type of behavior should be rewarded.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 14, 2009 1:06:16 AM

The cost argument was recently explicitly rejected by a member of the Alaska legislature as a reason for the state not to have the death penalty. The legislator said it was still worth it.

Posted by: Jacob Berlove | Jan 14, 2009 8:03:31 AM

I've always reminded those using the economic grounds as their basis for trying to end the death penalty that there are two alternatives available regarding costs. One is the LWOP option. The other is to mobilize support for cutting back appeals and court availability. As the commenters have noted, there would be (is) great support for that. So, rather than rejecting the death penalty, you get it quicker with fewer safeguards. It really is a "be careful what you wish for" thing.

Posted by: Michael Connelly | Jan 14, 2009 9:23:50 AM

Yeah, and the next step after the death penalty is abolished due to "cost"-- but really because liberals just don't like it-- will be to argue that LWOP is cruel, too expensive, too indiscriminate, yadda, yadda.

Every time you cede something to the pro-criminal lobby, they immediately establish a new goal, without even blushing that what they now oppose they urged as the alternative to the last "evil" they were working to eradicate.

Posted by: Tom | Jan 14, 2009 10:43:42 AM

Is there a "pro-criminal lobby?" Who are these "pro-criminal" types? Where does this "pro-criminal lobby" meet to plan their "pro-criminal" strategy? Might you be conflating "pro-Constitution" with "pro-criminal" because you don't understand the distinction?

Posted by: | Jan 14, 2009 10:53:16 AM

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