We Can’t Afford the Death Penalty

New America Media, Commentary, Lance Lindsey Posted: Mar 04, 2009

From California to New York, dozens of newspapers are declaring that state governments can no longer afford the death penalty.

The Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., recently reported that the death penalty is too costly. Maryland spent $37 million per execution in the past 28 years. In Florida, home to the second largest death row in the country, the cost estimates are $24 million per execution. California’s cost is $250 million per execution, according to a Los Angeles Times article cited in the report. These states are among 36 states that have the death penalty and, like nearly every state, are going through a financial crisis.

The outrageous price that taxpayers bear in order to kill a handful of prisoners has been thrown into sharp relief.

Legislators in New Mexico, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, Montana, New Hampshire, and Colorado are now calling for a repeal of capital punishment, not only to help balance budgets but as a necessary first step in redirecting scarce resources toward genuine public safety measures such as investigating unsolved homicides, community policing, modernizing crime labs, expanding mental health services and other more effective crime prevention programs.

As Martin O’Malley, the governor of Maryland, told the New York Times after showing that capital cases in his state cost three times as much as non-capital ones, "We can't afford that when there are better and cheaper ways to reduce crime."

Recognizing the grandstanding of so-called “tough on crime” politicians as hollow and self-serving, abolitionists have always been the foremost public safety advocates. The simplistic championing of the death penalty, they say, is not really about effective crime prevention, but more about political ambitions.

Jim Oppedahl, a former state court administrator of Helena, Montana, said recently: “There is simply no place for such an enormously expensive government program that accomplishes nothing. And on that criterion alone, the death penalty ought to die.”

From a global perspective, opposing the death penalty’s utter futility as a criminal justice tool is simply a matter of common sense. The majority of nations in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, and no Western democracy except the United States still kills its prisoners.

Here at home, more than 80 percent of all executions take place in the South. Given the fact that the latest FBI Uniform Crime report shows the highest murder rate in the United States to also be in the South, the argument for deterrence as a justification for the death penalty goes begging.

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,” President Obama challenged us. And with that we are called upon to replace the politics of cynicism and fearmongering with courageous leadership and a politics of conscience. “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” said President Obama. “Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.”

With these words resonating within us, we insist that those very ideals must apply to our criminal justice system as well.

It is utterly irresponsible to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to expand death rows when our schools, our health care, our environment, and everything we value in our communities face a slow painful demise. We must reject as false the choice between public safety and human rights. And we must not give up the ideal that justice without violence and revenge can be achieved in our lifetime.

Lance Lindsey is executive director of Death Penalty Focus.

Related Articles:

As Mexico Reels from Violence, Views on Crime and Punishment Harden

Reflections On Punishment

Lethal Injection Ruling Will Have Limited Impact

The Unseen, Uncounted Casualties of the Death Penalty

The Ritual of Executions

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User Comments

JSmithCSA on Mar 10, 2009 at 09:36:43 said:

Drag 'em out back and shoot 'em. Costs about $2.

Steve hit the nail on the head. It's endless mandatory appeals (even when the guilty party doesn't want one) and endless delays. While I do not advocate summary executions or hasty trials, the truth is that the longer the guilty remain clogging up the courts (rightly or wrongly) there is a cost to the taxpayer.

Opponents of the death penalty have made it so difficult to actually put someone to death, including halting all executions for decades, that the cost is now astronomical.

A middle ground must be found.

Informdcitizen on Mar 04, 2009 at 10:35:22 said:

That is not why it costs so much. Every capital case has an extra stage to it that other murder cases such as life in prison without parole do not, the sentencing stage. Just that alone with the experts paid for both the state and defense, plus court, and attorney costs, cost millions of dollars more for EVERY case. And that cost to the taxpayers exists whether or not the jury even hands down a death sentence, which most aren\'t now anyhow. It\'s not the appeals process that breaks the bank. And if it were, shortening it would execute more innocent people (already 130 innocent people have been freed from death row since 1976, how many weren\'t discovered?).

Steve on Mar 04, 2009 at 07:24:13 said:

Your article forgets something. Why is it so expensive to execute people?? Because the judicial system allows it to drag out foolishly long. These death row inmates don't deserve to have 10 or 20 years of appeals, etc. That's just simply immoral. This whole argument is simply folly. It's just the latest shady tactic by death penalty abolitionists. If you want to reform the system, pass laws to reduce the appeals process. I understand that Utah is in the process of doing that now.




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