When I am asked outright whether or not I support the death penalty, I am often tempted to say I do just so I can pull a Samuel L. Jackson and shout;
(If you have not seen A Time to Kill then you fail at life.)
The truth of the matter is that I’ve always been very much on the fence regarding the death penalty. I have often said that I believe the family of the victims should have more of a say in the process. After all, aren’t they the ones we are seeking justice for?
Having had this discussion with many people over the years, one argument for the death penalty that has always been somewhat compelling to me is that capital punishment is more cost effective than life imprisonment. It may be a bit if a cold approach, but sometimes we need to take emotion out of the equation when figuring these hot button issues out.
Here is the thing though. Is it really more cost effective?
Common sense would deem that it is absolutely less of a strain on taxpayer’s dollars to institute the death penalty. Studies show that the average cost of keeping an inmate in a maximum security prison is around $25,000 a year. The average life sentence lasts somewhere between 40 and 45 years. That means the average life sentence costs around 1 million dollars to carry out.
By comparison if we look at the costs involved to carry out the death sentence, we see a stark contrast. The most commonly used form of execution in the US is lethal injection. Of the 37 executions carried out in 2007, only 1 was by electrocution. The other 36 were all lethal injection. Here is what a lethal injection costs;
– The drugs used for the lethal injection (Sodium Thiopental (sedates person), Pancuronium Bromide (collapses diaphragm and lungs), and Potassium Chloride (stops heart beat)) cost roughly $100.
– The executioner is usually paid about 200 dollars to carry out the execution.
– The prisoner’s last meal is usually around 20 bucks.
– The new suit for burial is around 150 dollars.
– Lastly it costs about 600 dollars for the undertaker’s fees and a coffin.
All together these costs total a little over 1,000 dollars. This pales in comparison to the $1,000,000 shown for a life sentence. That is until we consider how lengthy of a process sentencing someone to death actually is.
When the Supreme Court re-instated the death penalty in 1976, they set forth a lengthy appeals process that all states must follow in any capital punishment case. This makes it extremely difficult to expedite the process. In 2007 there were over 3,200 inmates under sentence of death in the United States. Only 37 of those inmates were executed. In the state of Texas, which leads the nation in executions and death row inmates, the average prisoner sentenced to death will spend about 10 years on death row before they are executed. So if we apply our average of $25,000 a year per inmate to that 10 years we already have $250,000 more added to the cost to carry out a death sentence.
This pales in comparison however to the cost of litigation. At the outset, a murder case involving capital punishment takes an average of 34 more days to complete than non-capital punishment cases. On top of this, the slew of appeals can go on and on. It is estimated that the appeals process in the average death penalty case costs 2 to 3 million dollars of taxpayer’s money. The Supreme Court has made very stringent rules to try to ensure the rights of death row inmates, and these rules make it very difficult to actually carry out these sentences.
A good example of how expensive this process can be is the case of serial murder Ted Bundy. In 1989 it is estimated that it cost the state of Florida 5 million dollars to execute Bundy. Would as many people have been in favor of his execution if they knew how much it would cost?
But as is so often the case with these politically charged issues, you have to look at all the facs. Depending on which source you choose, these numbers will be skewed in either direction to suit the writer’s agenda. For example many of these studies do not take into account costs like geriatric care for inmates (estimated at about $69,000 a year). It is also assumed by many that a sentence of life without parole means that there will not be an appeals process. The appeals process for a death sentence may be more costly at the outset, but over time the appeals process for a life sentence tends to even out seeing as there is more time to appeal.
It’s all a big mess in the end. After doing the research and reading various sources, it is unclear which is more expensive. It seems to me that both are not very cost effective. The appeals process in general needs some serious re-vamping.