Capital punishment has been used as a punishment to crime for thousands of years. European colonists brought the concept with them to North America when they arrived. Hanging used to be the favored form of the death penalty, but is no longer in practice today. The most common methods of execution now are: electrocution, lethal injection, and use of the gas chamber. Executions used to be completed as soon as a person was found guilty. Now, with all of the appeals processes, and trials, and due process, getting to an execution is a rather lengthy process. Because of the length of the process and the magnitude with which these crimes are tried, the cost of it can skyrocket pretty quickly.
According to Roger Smith, author of Prisoners on Death Row, “the death penalty is an emotional, complex, and vital issue for criminals, courts, victims, advocates, justice officers, and ordinary citizens in the United States today.” (Smith 2007 pg14) The emotional costs of capital punishment are beyond measure in a monetary sense. Even greater than the emotional costs of capital punishment, are the financial costs and obligations that begin from the time a person is arrested, and continue through to the execution itself.
Take a look below at Figure 1.1. According to Judge Alarcon of California, the state of California has spent over $4 billion in death penalty cases over the last thirty-three years. This includes the cost of pre-trial, trial, appeals, and the costs associated with incarceration. When compared with what would have been spent on a non-capital murder trial, a capital murder trial is over a million more. All of those extra costs are covered by the taxpayers. (2011)
If we were to stop using the death penalty, and only sought life imprisonment for all murder crimes, I wonder if it would change the affect or lower the costs. With the death penalty being such a controversial issue, Even J. Mandery did look at the other side of the issue. Mandery, author of Capital Punishment in America, completed a study and found a “repeal of the death penalty would likely result in fewer pleas to life or long sentences, requiring that prosecutors either take more cases to trial at a substantial financial cost or accept bargaining to lesser sentences at a substantial cost to public safety.” (2012 pg103)
Throughout his research, Mandery found several loopholes that vary between the two types of cases. For instance, some cases had two prosecuting attorneys and two defending attorneys. Some had more than one charge, or more witnesses, evidence, or they had been plea bargained for lesser sentences. Because there were so many variables, it was difficult to get a true monetary comparison between the two. Based on the research that he was able to gather of the counties that did use the death penalty, only sixty eight (68) were tried as capital cases. The other 164 cases were pleaded down to life imprisonment. (2012 pg. 103)
If we were no longer using the death penalty, prosecutors would not have as much bargaining power with suspects, which would result in a lower amount of pleas. Then, more cases would go to trial, and it would take more time of the prosecutors, defenders, judges, court reporters and legal researchers, ultimately increasing costs. When looked at that way, “the trade off would be a wash overall.” (Mandery 2012 pg. 103)
In 2009, several states began to question whether or not they were going to continue using the death penalty. New Mexico “State Rep. Gail Chasey (D., Albuquerque) specifically noted the tax dollars that would be saved. ‘We can put that money toward enhancing law enforcement, public works, you name it.’” (Bargmann 2010)
New Jersey abolished the use of the death penalty in 2007. They conducted a study that showed giving life imprisonment to an inmate as opposed to the death penalty, would save them $1.3 million dollars, solely on the cost of housing them. That does not include the lowered court and attorney costs. If North Carolina were to follow suit, they would save well over $11 million a year. (Bargmann 2010)
Kent Scheidegger, a member of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, stated that, “As it presently exists, the death penalty does cost more than life imprisonment, […] but is that an argument for its repeal or an argument to make it less costly?” I believe that it is an argument for is repeal. (Bargmann 2010)
The death penalty can be quite costly from start to finish, and the money spent on a capital case compared to a non-capital case can be more than a million dollars. When faced with the decision to continue sentencing inmates to death or life imprisonment, one has to decide between the financial costs of executing them and the cost of the safety of the public safety. If we commute their sentences, it could allow them a possibility to commit another crime if they were ever freed. It would also lessen the prosecutor’s bargaining power. Because of each individual state’s ability to decide the factors that determine whether or not a murder is aggravated, this will continue to be a debate for many years to come. It is impossible to have one right answer in this matter.