Reality check: Death penalty is too expensive to make sense

By Reihan Salam
June 20, 2014

Handout of revamped lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison

Last week saw the first executions in the United States since the botched lethal injection of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett, which drew renewed attention to the death penalty. Despite a sharp decrease in support for the death penalty — from 78 percent as recently as 1996, to 55 percent in a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center — the practice remains on the books in 32 states. This reflects the fact that support for the death penalty is uneven, with conservatives and Republicans far more likely to support it than liberals and Democrats.

The result of this disparity is that even as liberal states like Maryland and New York do away with the practice, conservative states like Texas and Utah are likely to stick with it. The fundamental reason conservatives tend to support the death penalty is that, as University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephanos Bibas recently told the Boston Globe, it reflects their belief in the importance of individual responsibility. For conservatives troubled by the rights revolution that transformed the U.S. criminal justice system in the 1960s and 1970s, “the death penalty became a symbol: Are we willing to hold people accountable for their actions?”

Perhaps in recognition of this widespread belief in the death penalty as a symbol of individual responsibility, at least some death penalty critics are choosing to emphasize its physical cruelty. For example, the political theorist Austin Sarat of Amherst College, author of Gruesome Spectacles, a history of botched executions, argues that the death penalty is inseparable from physical cruelty, as evidenced by the long history of mishaps and malfunctions that have turned seemingly humane methods of execution into hellish torments.

My own belief is that while virtually all methods of execution, including the most ingenious ones, will at some point fail to deliver a painless death, this isn’t in itself an argument against the death penalty. All human institutions suffer from limitations, and it’s hard to deny that contemporary executions are in important respects less cruel than those used in past eras.

A man and his son hold candles outside the prison before the execution of John Allen Muhammad at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, VirginiaMoreover, there is no reason to believe that progress has ceased. If you embrace the basic premise that the death penalty has important symbolic value, as a sign that some crimes are so heinous as to merit death, you’re not going to be convinced that botched executions are reason enough to abandon it.

The argument that I find most compelling is that prosecuting death penalty cases is extremely expensive. A 2008 Urban Institute study found that in Maryland, which recently abolished its death penalty, the cost of the average capital-eligible case in which prosecutors did not seek the death penalty was $1.1 million, including $870,000 in incarceration costs and $250,000 in expenses associated with adjudication. In capital-eligible cases in which prosecutors sought the death penalty unsuccessfully, the average cost was $1.8 million — $950,000 in prison costs and $750,000 in adjudication costs, or three times as much as in cases in which the death penalty was not sought. And in capital-eligible cases in which prosecutors successfully sought the death penalty, the average cost was $3 million, with $1.3 million devoted to incarceration and $1.7 million to adjudication.

The numbers appear to be even more egregious in other states. In 2003, the Kansas state government found that cases in which the death penalty was sought cost 70 percent more than those in which it was not sought.

It might seem rather bloodless to oppose the death penalty on the grounds that it is extremely expensive. But given that the death penalty doesn’t appear to have much of a deterrent effect, a cost-based opposition might be reason enough to abandon it, or at least to only pursue it in cases uniquely offensive to the moral order.

I agree with those who believe that the death penalty ought to remain on the table as a way for society to demonstrate the seriousness with which it embraces the idea of individual responsibility. Yet we can enshrine this belief while using the death penalty very, very sparingly.

(Editor’s note: The original version of this column appeared on June 20, 2014. It was updated on June 23.)

PHOTOS: An undated handout photo of the revamped lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison supplied by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation October 25, 2012.

Darick Lane (L) and his son Desmond Lane (R) hold candles outside the prison before the execution of John Allen Muhammad at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia, November 10, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

16 comments

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I am against the death penalty for a variety of reasons. But the argument that it is too expensive makes me want to support it.

Prosecuting a misdemeanor charge of vandalism can easily cost more than the damage done. Prosecution costs can be $20,000, not including a public defender. Should we stop prosecuting vandalism or should we reform the criminal law system?

The cost to prosecute a murder charge can easily be $100,000 plus the public defender. Then there are the court costs. For a complicated case, a $1 million is not unusual.

Abandoning our justice system because the lawyers have mad it too expensive is not an option. I’d rather see price caps on lawyer fees.

Posted by Yaakovweeeeeee | Report as abusive

the expensive part is keeping them around for so long after they are found guilty

Posted by Mutantone | Report as abusive

Several things could be solved by eliminating the death penalty.
1) It would elevate America morally in regards to human rights and it’s standing with European allies, as many in the world consider the death penalty to be uncivilized.
2) It would save the tax payers a lot of money that is completely wasted.
3) It would create better peace of mind about mistakenly killing someone that was actually innocent, which has happened many times.(see the innocence project)
4) To many people, life in prison is actually a more severe punishment than the death penalty.
5) To people of faith… thou shalt not kill.

Posted by BelieveInLove | Report as abusive

I don’t think the death penalty is a deterrent. At least not until the last few days and it’s to late then.
So I guess I agree with @BelieveInLove. Good points, all of them. And we also need to reign in the lawyers, correctional unions, and outsourced prison costs.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Is the life of the pedophile worth more somehow than the child he murdered? I think not. We humanely euthanize millions of unwanted pets. We can do the same with psychopathic killers. It costs a million dollars in useless appeals simply because we lack a backbone. I wonder if the liberals count the expense of prison costs as cost of the execution if it is carried out, even though that expense is the same in any case.

Posted by skyraider | Report as abusive

Actually, I believe it is a fallacy to believe the cost of an execution is greater than life imprisonment. If done correctly, the execution is over in a matter of minutes. Life imprisonment brings along with it many benefits including the opportunity to get a college degree (or a few if you’ve got enough time), computer access, mental health services, pastoral counseling, rent-free housing (for what it is), the finest continuous legal services those of us on the outside can only dream of having if we need it, and all the elicit drugs you can use. Welcome to the US world of incarceration. Life imprisonment is clearly the bigger expense for taxpayers.

Posted by MonitorLizard | Report as abusive

I favor the use of the guillotine for executions.
It is direct, quite reliable, and simple.
The experience of the French prior to discarding the death penalty was very consistent.

With regards pain, it is absolutely irrational to insist that our penal system function without pain. The line for “cruelty” is a different matter but surely it makes no sense whatever to incarcerate someone for even a few minutes and insist that we do so without pain.

I personally favor retaining the death penalty for 3 reasons: (1) It eliminates the possibility that the criminal who is executed will cause harm in the future. (2) It relieves society of the burden of incarcerating the criminal. (3) It relieves society of responsibility for the unavoidable cruelties which attend long term incarceration.

Posted by DonKrieger | Report as abusive

Conservatives believe in the death penalty because “it reflects their belief in the importance of individual responsibility” – that is the kindest most gracious, patronizing, a$$ kissing explanation of a Conservative view of the death penalty that I’ve ever heard. That’s like saying, Conservatives believe in a strong military because they believe in defending our homeland. What we omitted is their equally strong belief that the best defense is a good offense … (insert evil laugh as missiles are launched and fighter jets take to the air!). This article is a fail! Reihan’s exhalation of conservative values just got contradicted by every conservative that posted on this article.

Posted by JulsMan | Report as abusive

From earlier articles and government info. The cost for Lethal Injection is about $150k per inmate. That’s less then 2 years of incarceration and don’t need to worry about more medical expenses when the inmate is very old and dieing.

However yes, the cost is to great. Bullets are far cheaper and less likely to have issues. Firing squad is just fine and we know they will be dead within seconds. Electrocution is also far cheaper.

Do we really want to give a damn about someone feeling pain for a couple seconds or milliseconds when they caused massive pain to those they killed / raped. They caused years of pain to the families and loved ones of their victims. I really don’t give a damn if they feel pain… correction… I would prefer they feel just a fraction of the same pain as they died.

Posted by Syanis | Report as abusive

The death penalty is also a major deterrent as long as used properly. No sitting around in a cush cell for 20-30 years while exhausting appeals. Your found guilty and you get 1 appeal which first goes to a panel of 3 judges to determine if there is any basis for appeal. Only allow appeals of not guilty by innocence, no other reasonings allowed. If heinous criminals were executed one after another it would deter others greatly.

The option of no death penalty needs to reform the prison system greatly. Make these prisoners work doing hard labor again. They can work in coal mines and other mines, quarries, and plenty of other government hard labor projects. Attempt to escape is shot dead on sight. No more TVs, no more exercise gyms, no more taxpayer funded education for convicts. The meals could even be toned down. They can get healthy food but nothing says it has to taste good.

Posted by Syanis | Report as abusive

USA needs to go to China and the Middle East for some lessons on how to run the death penalty. Smooth and efficient, innocence or not.

Posted by Faxplz | Report as abusive

Obtaining lethal injection drugs became overly expensive, with legal processes about making manufacturer names available to the convicts and their lawyers, and all. So why not just going back to hanging? It is (or at least was) quite usual a procedure. And if it was not cruel in the days of founding fathers, why suddenly it became cruel after centuries of successful application? So that, for the constitutionality of hanging.
A rope is cheap, and there’s always someone willing to kick a bench from under the feet of the convict, if only for the kick of it. And lengthy appeals are in fact a violation of the constitutional right to a speedy trial. Not only the criminals have that right, the families of their victims have it, too, as there’s no closure till the justice runs its course. And as a side effect of speeding up the justice, the tax payers will save greatly on legal costs.

Posted by Nagant | Report as abusive

Violent sociopaths and psychopaths are too expensive. The U.S. is 40+ years late coming to the realization that warm milk and a hug at night will fix he enormous numbers of barbaric subhumans constantly casing our streets and public venues for innocents to harm and kill.

Past time for biomedical research science to hone down the known 1000 genetic markers for sociopathic behaviors that are shared by most men in prison for violent crimes. Start testing for it, then pay people who have those markers not to breed. Just as important, a pre-natal test; positive for those markers in utero … outta here. There are 7 billion humans on the planet. If only .5% are violent sociopaths – and the percentage is actually far higher – that’s too many dangerous predators walking around looking to rape and murder children and women.

Posted by timebandit | Report as abusive

Perhaps we could bring back the art of crucifixion as a means to an end.

Posted by agentinsure | Report as abusive

HAHA! These idiots think its the cost of the chemicals and delivery methods that make the execution expensive. Bullets and firing squads, that will bring the costs down. LOL. Morons. This absence of thought makes it impossible for any thinking human to be a conservative. New party please!!

Posted by JulsMan | Report as abusive

By the time of Jesus Christ, the Jews had used their Talmud to make the death penalty almost impossible as a punishment due to extreme requirements: at least 2 eyewitnesses, defendant must have announced prior to the murder that he intended to commit the murder AND someone else had to try to talk him out of it (several times – if I recall correctly), the jury had to have at least 1 vote for acquittal, etc, to act on their scriptural mandate of an eye for an eye.

Jesus Christ was recorded to have advocated mercy towards those who commit violence. Turn the other cheek, blessed are the merciful, the standard by which you judge others is same standard you will be judged by (after death). Nowhere in the Christian scriptures do the authors advocate executing anyone at all.

In Islam, the Qur’an says that forgiving a murderer by sparing him from execution (with or without financial compensation for the victim’s family) is an act of great moral merit.

From the viewpoint of conservatives, America is a “Christian nation” with sizable minorities of Jews and Muslims. These conservatives want their beliefs made into the norm for everyone, and yet, they cannot seem to find the mercy that they own religion dictates.

I’ve never voted to execute a criminal, so I think I am morally qualified to “cast the first stone” about this.

It’s a pity that Mr. Salam couldn’t advocate compassion and mercy as a reason to banish the death penalty in this country.

Posted by UrDrighten | Report as abusive