a bird and a bottle

On the Costs of the Death Penalty
March 23, 2007, 10:22 am
Filed under: academe, civil rights, criminal justice, law, news


Whenever I engage in a debate about the death penalty (admittedly, not that often in the political echo chamber that is my family and friends), I inevitably run into this argument: but it’s so much cheaper to kill someone than to keep them incarcerated for life. This, of course, is blatantly false as study after study attest (I know, there are studies that go the other way too. That’s the funny thing about numbers – you can make them say whatever you want).

So maybe when arguing against the death penalty from an economic efficiency standpoint, the best thing to do is use not statistics, but raw numbers.

So here you go: According to an article in today’s Atlanta Journal Constitution, which also features the cool graphic above (click the image for full-size), it will cost over $4 million to prosecute Brian Nichols, who is accused of going on a shooting rampage killing four people last year. Clearly a bad guy. But $4 mil to make sure he ends up dead? And that figure doesn’t even include the expense of actually executing him, should he be sentenced to death. The paper reports:

In large part, the spiraling costs stem from prosecutors’ decision to seek the death penalty. Capital cases require more lawyers, prolonged pre-trial hearings and lengthy trials entailing weeks just for jury selection.

Nichols has offered to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison without parole. But Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard insists that a jury must decide whether Nichols should be executed.

Nichols has offered to plead to life in prison without parole. That would cost a whole hell of a lot less than $4 million (again, a number sure to rise if he is convicted). The bottom line is that the reason the death penalty exists is not because it’s more economically efficient, but because people like retribution and they think it can only come through death.

But there’s no guarantee that a $ 4mil prosecution gets you the truth.*

(Via Sentencing Law & Policy Blog)

* and even if it did, I would not support the death penalty.


10 Comments so far
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even figuring the costs of life in prison (roughly $30K/year), he’d have to spend over 100 years in prison before the cost even came close.
of course, this is a somewhat sick way to talk about the death penalty. perhaps we should start the discussion by saying it’s morally reprehensible – and also cost inefficient. (though i guess, give you and your audience, the first part was implied.)

Comment by professorplum

You’re right Prof. Plum, it is implied, but it shouldn’t be. Something like that can’t be said enough. So here it is: The death penalty is morally reprehensible and should be abolished on that basis alone.

Comment by bean

Actually, the reason the use of the death penalty in the US increased between 1980 and 1995 is that it was so expensive early on, due to rigid restrictions on the precise circumstances it could be used in. In order to justify the system, state legislatures just added more and more aggravating circumstances in order to drive down the marginal cost of execution.

But yeah, even so, it’s horrendously expensive. Just before the recall election, Gray Davis instituted a new death row system, slated to cost $220 million; to fund it, he hiked tuition at Cal and Cal State. Since 1976, California has executed a grand total of 13 people. Draw your own conclusions as to the efficiency of Davis’s system.

Comment by Alon Levy

Alon: Tuition, education, execution … makes one want to move out-of-state. Yikes!!

Comment by Swampcracker

strong argument, alon.
additionally, the problem with the economic argument is that there is no shortage of people who would happily have us pay less for legal defense

Comment by professorplum

Great comments. Some more perspective. In the 10 years, NY had a functioning death penalty since 1995, the state spent about $15 million per year for the Capital Defender Office, millions to the prosecutors for capital prosecutions, millions to counties for the cost of these cases, millions for the Department of Correctional Services to build and run death row, additional funds to the Court of Appeals to hear death penalty appeals, and much more. For the hundreds of millions spent, in 10 years, 7 individuals were put on death row, and (thankfully) none has been executed. The death penalty was declared unconstitutional in NY, and one capital appeal remains pending. A wise investment?

Comment by RickyVermont

Ricky, those numbers are appalling though not surprising at this point. It’s painful to think where else that money could have gone (education in and out of prisons, real crime prevention, etc.)

Question: forthe people who were sent to death row during the 10 years in which NY had a death penalty, what happens to them now? Are their sentences automatically commuted to life? Or do they remain “on death row”?

Comment by bean

Bean, you are so right that the money could have been spent more wisely. The public was duped by the Governor into thinking that hundreds of millions spent on a failed death penalty approach would make them safer. Crime may have gone down over those years, but not because we had a death penalty on the books.

To answer your question, yes, those who whose death sentences were vacated are now serving life without parole. There remains one capital case on appeal: People v. John Taylor (the notorious “Wendy’s” case). In that case, the prosecution is arguing that the defect in the statute that led the Court of Appeals to strike the death penalty was cured by an instruction by the trial court. It is scary to think that the Court (with a different lineup of judges) might accept that argument. I believe the case will be argued this Spring.

Comment by ricky vermont

On what grounds did the Court of Appeals strike the death penalty?

Comment by Alon Levy

Alon, The Court of Appeals held the NY State death penalty statute in violation of the state constitution because the jury instructions it required in the sentencing phase were found to be coercive. Here’s more:

ursuant to New York’s death penalty statute at the time, once a defendant was found guilty, the trial court instructed the jurors to decide whether the defendant should be sentenced to death or to life without parole. Either choice had to be unanimous. The trial court further instructed the jurors, as required by the statute, that if they failed to agree, the court would sentence the defendant to life imprisonment with parole eligibility after serving a minimum of 20 to 25 years.

This instruction is referred to as a “deadlock instruction,” and it is unique among death penalty laws in other jurisdictions in that the sentence required after a deadlock is less severe than the sentences the jury is allowed to consider. No other death penalty scheme in the country requires judges to instruct jurors that, if they cannot unanimously agree between two choices, the judge will sentence defendant to a third, more lenient, choice. (See New York’s Criminal Procedure Law 400.27 (10))

Coercive Effect of Statute’s Deadlock Instruction on Juries

In New York, a defendant’s future dangerousness is not a statutory aggravator that the jury is told to consider. However, the court held that the deadlock instruction might interject a fear that if jurors do not reach unanimity, the defendant would be paroled in 20 years and pose a threat to society. In light of the jurors’ likely concerns over the defendant’s future dangerousness, jurors who are otherwise inclined toward life without parole might be pushed toward favoring death because they see the sentencing choice as one between death and life with parole. The choice of death, the court voted, results not through “a comparison of views, and by arguments among the jurors themselves,” but through fear and coercion. By interjecting future dangerousness, the deadlock instruction gives rise to an unconstitutional risk that one or more jurors will join others favoring death in order to avoid the more lenient sentence that would follow a deadlock.

The New York court considered whether the statute afforded the due process guaranteed under Article I, section 6 of the State Constitution. The court quoted the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Woodson v North Carolina, stating that because death is qualitatively different from other sentences, there is a “corresponding difference in the need for reliability in the determination that death is the appropriate punishment in a specific case.” The court found that under New York’s current death penalty scheme, whether a juror chooses death or life without the possibility of parole, “the choice is driven by the fear that a deadlock may result in the eventual release of the defendant.” The choice is not, as it should be, the result of a reasoned understanding that it was the appropriate one.

(from the Death Penalty Information Center, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?scid=38&did=1066).

Comment by bean

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