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Capital Crime, Taxpayers Dime

Ironically, you read some articles about the efficiency of the death penalty. I mean, if you think about it, putting someone to death must be cheaper than housing and feeding someone for life. Putting aside all the controversy regarding whether the death penalty is moral or not, it should at least save the taxpayers' money, right?


Most have heard some of the morality debate regarding the death penalty. Nonetheless, some of the key debates center around the moral implications of one human taking the life of another, sparking discussions among religious and secular communities. Supporters of the death penalty believe that society should execute individuals who have committed heinous acts such as murder. They believe since they have taken the life of another; they forfeit their right to their own life. Those who speak against the death penalty typically counter this point of “one life for another” by expressing that prison life is not a leisurely life and that, in some cases, life in prison is worse than death.


Another main justification people have for maintaining the death penalty is the hope that this type of punishment deters others from committing crimes, not wanting to risk getting the death penalty. Although, there are no studies that show that capital punishment is a deterrent. A good example of this would be the American South, which has the highest murder rate in our country and administers 81% of the nation's executions. However, in states with no death penalty, their murder rates have consistently stayed lower.


It might be surprising to discover that the death penalty costs the United States taxpayers far more than keeping someone alive in prison for the rest of their natural life. HG Legal Experts determined that prosecuting death penalty cases costs U.S taxpayers $50-90 million more annually compared to life sentences. Which brings to question, why does it cost more for the death penalty?


Since the 1970s, the US has executed only 1,578 people, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). Therefore, it is not the sheer number of executions that is the problem. Most states in the US have not executed a single person in the past decade. In recent years, for instance, several states have abolished the death penalty and are replacing it with life sentencing with no possibility of parole. New Hampshire abolished the death penalty in 2019, followed by Colorado in 2020, and then Virginia in 2021.


 The death penalty is still legal in twenty-seven states, including Kansas, Idaho, North Carolina, and Texas, to name a few. In the past 10 years, 21 of these states carried out the death penalty. However, most of the executions are concentrated in only a few states such as Texas, Virginia, and Oklahoma. In 2023 between January 3rd through October 10th  there have been 20 executions mostly occurring in Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, a couple in Florida, and one in Alabama.


Then, what accounts for the higher costs? According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the cost of having the food boxed separately for these executions is over $25,000 per execution. Authorities house death penalty inmates in special maximum-security facilities and lock them down for 23 hours each day, since they have nothing to lose they pose a greater threat to guards and other inmates. When death row inmates are allowed one hour a day out of confinement, guards closely monitor them and ensure they stay within their isolated outdoor area. 


For the hours leading up to the execution, the entire prison goes on lockdown, requiring more personnel than usual. There are also the costs of the medical personnel, the coffin, burial, and the family members of the inmate room and board.  Individuals on death are usually executed after more than a decade and some are even held for around two decades. The existing costs are compounded by the duration of time the person spends on death row before execution.


Legal fees are also a crucial element to be considered in this regard. In addition to the basic costs of the judge and courthouse, the death penalty is costlier for the jury and trial fees. Jury selection for these cases takes significantly longer as it is necessary to question the jurors meticulously about their views on the death penalty. As The University of Akron states, “Death-penalty trials can last more than four times longer than non-capital trials, requiring juror and attorney compensation, in addition to court personnel and other related costs.” For most individuals, financial constraints compel the reliance on court-appointed lawyers or public defenders. 


In 2014, the Kansas Judicial Council thirty-four death penalty cases between 2004 and 2011 and found that defense costs for capital punishment trials averaged around $395,000 per case. Though only $98,000 when the death penalty was not sought out. Capital cases are far more complex than non-capital cases and lengthen trial time. Experts will need to call in for forensic evidence and mental health, background, and life history of the defendant. Herein, county taxpayers pay the cost of added security and longer pre-trial detention. 


Another study conducted by Lewis & Clark Law School and Seattle University in 2016 established that sixty-one death sentences in Oregon cost taxpayers an average of 2.3 million dollars. Though 313 aggravated murder cases on average only cost 1.4 million dollars. Susquehanna University suggests that capital punishment costs about three billion dollars more than it would cost to have all death row inmates serve their life sentences. A study by South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty extensively reviewed murder cases since 1985, particularly focusing on the death penalty or life sentencing. They found, on average, that legal costs in the death penalty cases majorly exceeded those in the life sentence cases by $335,105. 


As mentioned by Interrogating Justice, the average federal prison costs around $39,000 a year. Federal prisons that have death row inmates cost between $60,000-$70,000 a year to operate. California has the highest number of prisoners waiting for execution and keeps them separate from the rest. Since they had to maintain two separate facilities, it is estimated to cost them $85,000 a year to incarcerate a condemned prisoner. In contrast, on average, it costs $45,000 yearly for them to incarcerate a prisoner serving a life sentence without parole. 


There were 13 executions conducted during the Trump administration. As determined by the ACLU, The Federal Bureau of Prisoners spent nearly 4.7 million dollars on the first five executions in 2020. Taxpayers could have potentially spent 12.2 million dollars on the remaining eight executions, assuming the costs are comparable to the first five.


The effects of the death penalty necessarily exceed the concerns of costs. They also linked the death penalty to PTSD and depression among the victim’s family members. The Texas After Violence Project found ongoing mental health issues for affected family members. 


We cannot calculate the risk of putting an innocent individual to death.  With the rise of individuals being exonerated years after conviction, it is only fair to assume that they have put innocent people to death. As reported by the Death Penalty Information Center “Since 1973, at least 195 people who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated.” For instance, the Nathaniel Woods case in Alabama was one where despite strong evidence proving his innocence, he was convicted in 2005 and executed in 2020.


Having considered the facts on the expense of the death penalty and the extensive morality debate, officials must implement affordable alternatives in the judicial landscape.


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