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Cost of Capital Punishment Comes Under Increased Scrutiny in a Struggling Economy

A new report released by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) challenges the economic feasibility and sensibility of states maintaining the death penalty amid the nation’s current economic downturn.

The report, entitled Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis, “explores the prospect of saving states hundreds of millions of dollars by ending the death penalty.” Additionally, the report included the results of a national poll of police chiefs, which indicated that capital punishment was “at the bottom of their priorities for achieving a safer society.”

The poll, commissioned by the DPIC, surveyed 500 police chiefs selected at random from across the nation. They were asked for their opinions on a variety of issues, from the deterrence value of the death penalty and its effect on reducing violent crime to the efficiency of capital punishment when compared to alternative ways to allocate scarce budgetary resources and its preferability to sentences of life without parole.

The DPIC found that the police chiefs surveyed had a “high degree of skepticism about the death penalty, and a strong desire to spend limited funds more productively elsewhere.” When asked whether or not they agreed with the statement, “The death penalty does little to prevent violent crimes because perpetrators rarely consider the consequences when engaged in violence,” 57% agreed while 39% disagreed.

Further, only 37% of the poll respondents believed that capital punishment significantly reduces homicides, while a mere 24% “believe murderers think about the range of possible punishments” before committing their crimes. The DPIC report also noted that in another recent survey, 88% of the nation’s top criminologists rejected the notion that executions were a deterrent and 87% felt that abolishing capital punishment would have no significant effect on the murder rate.

Similarly, when the police chiefs were presented with a list of methods to reduce violent crime, including increasing the number of police officers, reducing drug abuse and improving the economy, only 1% of those surveyed named the death penalty as the most important. In fact, according to the poll, capital punishment was considered the “least efficient use of taxpayers’ money,” ranking below expanded training and neighborhood watch programs, among other options. While the police chiefs did not oppose the death penalty “in principle,” less than half of those surveyed preferred it to a sentence of life without parole.

The budgetary crisis facing many state criminal justice systems also was reviewed, and the DPIC report found that significant savings could be achieved by abolishing the death penalty. It explored the true costs to states of maintaining capital punishment systems, why those costs are increasing and why they can’t be effectively reduced.

Several cases were highlighted in which states with the death penalty were being forced to make significant cuts to other areas of their justice systems. A 10% reduction in pay to Atlanta police officers, a 10% cut in funding to Florida courts, and public defenders in Kentucky and Tennessee saddled with caseloads nearly three times established national standards were just a few of the examples cited.

Costs have also impacted the way some states administer their capital punishment systems. Prosecutors in Florida are reducing the number of cases in which they seek the death penalty. The head of the death penalty unit of the public defender’s office in Georgia resigned, stating that his office was unable to fairly represent defendants due to budgetary constraints. New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009, citing cost as a factor. [See: PLN, July 2009, p.28].

Indeed, the actual cost of capital punishment is difficult to ascertain. The report considered a number of different ways to calculate the expenses incurred by a state in order to maintain its death penalty system. However, the DPIC noted that under any line of reasoning, capital punishment is exceedingly more expensive than criminal justice systems where life in prison is the maximum sentence.

For example, by one method of calculation, California was found to be spending $137 million per year on the death penalty. The same methodology estimated that only $11.5 million would be necessary for a system in which life in prison was the maximum sentence. As California has averaged only one execution every two years since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977, the average cost per execution can be said to exceed $250 million. The state is now also considering building a new death row facility, at a cost of about $400 million. [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.34].

Many other costs associated with capital punishment were examined in the report. Among those were increased trial and appellate court costs; the amount of time that prosecutors, public defenders, judges and others must spend on capital punishment trials compared to other types of cases; and the additional cost of housing death-sentenced prisoners in maximum security units. As the number of both death sentences and executions has dropped by about 60% nationwide since 2000, the cost per execution has been steadily rising.

Finally, the DPIC report concluded that such expenses cannot be responsibly reduced. For example, limiting the appellate process could lead to a greater risk of executing innocent defendants. Since 1976, 132 death row prisoners have been exonerated.

The majority of costs, however, occur at the trial level. Such costs stem from increased attorney expenses, the bifurcated trial process, expert witnesses such as mitigation specialists and additional time spent in jury selection, among others. Similarly, shortchanging the trial process could also lead to wrongful convictions – which are yet another cost of capital punishment.


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