The moral arguments against the death penalty are good and sound. They basically boil down to: We shouldn’t kill people, especially not when there’s perfectly effective non-lethal options to use instead. But let’s ignore that for a moment. Let’s also ignore the fact that we’ve almost certainly executed innocent people in the last couple decades, most notably Cameron Todd Willingham. Let’s ignore the inequality of the death penalty with regard to race, gender and class. Let’s instead focus on the cost.
Reason.com has a fascinating article breaking down the numbers for just how much it costs to murder people in the name of justice. It varies from state-to-state, of course, and not surprisingly death is pretty cheap in Texas, but even there it’s more than you might expect.
Even the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, which this year offers a charm bracelet for $248,000, has nothing to compare. Maryland has spent $186 million on capital cases over the past 30 years—which comes to $37 million per execution.
The typical Texas death case carries a price tag of $2.3 million. A 2005 study pointed out that “New Jersey taxpayers over the last 23 years have paid more than a quarter billion dollars on a capital punishment system that has executed no one.”
How much spare money does your state have to throw around? I know Arizona, which has a death penalty, is pretty deep in the red. So much so that we’ve actually had to sell various parts of the state capitol building, and we are, of course, cutting back on education despite the fact that a good education has been shown to be one of the best ways to avoid a life of crime. Given that most states are having budget problems, I have to believe this is a nationwide problem. If a state is cutting back on schools because it can’t afford them, how can it justify spending millions to prosecute a death penalty case?
I’m sure supporters of state-run murder would say, hey, let’s just cut back on the number of appeals! That’ll speed things up and make it cheaper! It would, true, but it would also nearly guarantee that we’d wind up killing innocent people. If you’re ok with that notion, then there’s just not much hope for you.
So all the moral arguments aside, I don’t see how we can continue to justify the death penalty purely on a financial basis. It’s bad, it’s wrong, and it’s just too damn expensive.