The Real Cost of Capital Punishment

Crime, Taxes

Death PenaltyWhile many believe capital punishment makes more sense than life in prison for the worst of criminals, trials resulting in the death penalty come with a huge price tag for tax payers. While some believe the death penalty deters criminals from committing violent crimes, many believe the costs outweigh the benefits of execution.

Prevalence of Capital Punishment

Thirty-three states support the death penalty; however, many rarely enforce it.  The Death Penalty Information Center reports that executions in the United States — which peaked at 98 in 1999 — have dropped dramatically (43 last year, and 27 as of August 15 of this year).  Since 1976, Connecticut (who just repealed its death penalty), New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota have each only executed one person; Texas, however, has put 484 to death (13 last year and 7 so far in 2012).  The South accounts for 80 percent of all executions.

What’s interesting is the number of death sentences in comparison to the actual number of executions.  Last year 104 death sentences were made, but only 43 were executed; since 1976, there has been about 1 execution for every 500 murders; California has issued 951 death sentences since 1976, but only 13 of those prisoners have been executed.  Since 1973, over 130 people have been exonerated from death row with evidence of their innocence.  Since 2000 there have been an average of 5 exonerations per year.

The Cost of the Death Penalty

Capital murder cases are much, much more expensive than if the death penalty is not sought.  Death row isn’t cheap, either; a California study found that the additional cost of confining an inmate to death row is $90,000 more per year per inmate than those with a life sentence in a maximum security prison — and California’s current death row population is 670. The current system in California costs up to $184 million per year; the study claims that switching to a maximum-security lifetime incarceration system would only cost $11.5 million per year.  California has initiated a November ballot measure that would replace capital punishment with a no-parole life term.

Will the Rules Change?

The death penalty debate will likely continue for ages; advocates of capital punishment believe doing away with it will lead to more violent crime, while others are angered by it for moral or economic reasons.  Unfortunately, the National Academy of Sciences recently concluded that existing research “is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates.”  States like California — with high numbers of death row inmates — will likely continue to consider repealing the death penalty and switch to life sentences. The Death Penalty Information Center reports that 61 percent of voters would prefer this anyway.