Forget the Moral Arguments for a Moment…

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. 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.


8 Responses to “Forget the Moral Arguments for a Moment…”

  1. Dudley Sharp Says:

    Maybe you and Reason should have fact checked.

    “Death Penalty Cost Studies: Saving Costs over LWOP”

    “The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents”

    “Death Penalty Sentencing: No Systemic Bias”

    “The Innocent Executed: Deception & Death Penalty Opponents”–death-penalty-opponents–draft.aspx

    “Cameron Todd Willingham: Another Media Meltdown”, A Collection of Articles

    “Death Penalty Support: Religious and Secular Scholars”

    • Chris Says:

      I’ve looked over your articles, which are fairly well-written, btw, always a nice thing to see. 🙂 I still can’t agree with your conclusions, but since you seem quite pro-death penalty, that’s not much of a surprise. 😉

      Your articles are fairly extensive and I urge people to check them out for themselves. Rather than try to refute every point you make, I’ll simply address a few that stood out to me.

      No knowledgeable and honest party questions that the death penalty has the most extensive due process protections in US criminal law.

      Therefore, actual innocents are more likely to be sentenced to life imprisonment and more likely to die in prison serving under that sentence, that it is that an actual innocent will be executed.

      That is. logically, conclusive.

      So clearly we need to make sure people sentenced to any crime receive extensive appeals processes. I agree entirely! It’s bad to have anyone convicted for any crime that they didn’t actually do. Therefore everyone should have a huge set of appeals exactly like people on death row get.

      Furthermore, possibly we have sentenced 25 actually innocent people to death since 1973, or 0.3% of those so sentenced. Those have all been released upon post conviction review. The anti death penalty claims, that the numbers are significantly higher, are a fraud, easily discoverable by fact checking.

      You seem somewhat dismissive of this number. The mere fact that anyone who is innocent of the crime for which they are convicted spends any time at all on death row should be worrying, even if it’s “only” .3%.

      The death penalty is expensive. It’s immoral. If there’s any chance of executing anyone who turns out to be innocent, it’s fundamentally wrong. It’s unnecessary. It’s not a real deterrent. It just serves no purpose other than to give people a warm feeling of revenge when it’s carried out.

  2. Dudley Sharp Says:


    Thank you for your consideration.

    I am not all dismissive of any actual innocents harmed, under any circumstances. I am simply trying to make a factual point.

    Do you think everything whereby innocents are harmed is fundamentally wrong?

    Of all the world’s actions that put innocents at risk, I suspect the US death penalty is the best at protecting innocents.

    Are all those other actions or ommissions wrong? Should we do away with them.

    All human endeavors have error. Should we end them all?

    If the death penalty provides a net benefit of saving innocent lives, which it does, doing away with it will sacrifice more innocents. See link.

    Your position would sacrifice more innocents.

    I think the moral arguements for the death penalty are considerably stronger than those in opposition, see last link.

    I changed positions on the death penalty.

    on costs:

    a) Lethal injection, capital punishment in Texas during the modern era, Jonathan Roger Sorensen, Rocky LeAnn Pilgrim, Univ of Texas Press, 2006-05-01

    This book finds, as I do, that most death penalty studies are a bad joke, and that the costs of the death penalty and life sentences will be about equal and that in some reviews, the death penalty is cheaper than LWOP cases.

    b) “Death Penalty Cost Studies: Saving Costs over LWOP”

    c) “Duke (North Carolina) Death Penalty Cost Study: Let’s be honest”
    (NOTE: A 2009 study, by one of these authors, found that by ending the death penalty NC might save $11 million , or about 1 penny ever third day/person. I have not read it, yet. Based upon the prior study, reviewed here, the death penalty likely saves money.)

    d) Cost Savings: The Death Penalty

  3. Dudley Sharp Says:

    On deterrence:

    All prospects of a negative outcome deter some. It is a truism. The death penalty, the most severe of criminal sanctions, is the least likely of all criminal sanctions to violate that truism.

    1) 25 recent studies finding for deterrence, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation,

    2) “Deterrence & the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock”

    3) “Death Penalty, Deterrence & Murder Rates: Let’s be clear”

    4) This is out of date, but corrects a number of the misconceptions about deterrence.

    “Death Penalty and Deterrence”–confirmed–seven-recent-studies-updated-61204.aspx

    5) “The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents”

    • Chris Says:

      My position is that life imprisonment is punishment enough. If there’s one thing we’re very good at in this country, it’s keeping people in prison. It’s actually pretty easy to make a prison cell that’s about as escape-proof as anything can be. Keeping people in prison, cruel though even that is, is less cruel than killing them and it’s a perfectly viable option.

      Another question is this: suppose we had verifiable, actual proof that we’d executed an innocent person. Would you be willing to still proceed with executions?

      • Dudley Sharp Says:


        I think yu missed a major point. We already have almost innermurable cases of innocents who were murdered, because we didn’t execute known murderers.

        The error is in not executing murderers.

        With or without proof, as a matter of probability, we have executed an innocent. I have always felt that way.

        I answered your questions, but you didn’t address mine. Notice?

        LWOP sacrifices more innocents, btw.

        I know you prefer LWOP. I prefer both LWOP and the death penalty, so we can determine which is more just for the crime committed.

        Sanction cannot be based upon saving innocent life, but must be based upon the sanction being earned and deserved.

        Again, thank you.

        • Chris Says:

          Sorry, I’d figured your questions were rhetorical, since they certainly seemed that way.

          Do you think everything whereby innocents are harmed is fundamentally wrong?

          Yes. It might sometimes be less wrong than other outcomes (like how bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved possibly millions of Japanese lives at the expense over over a hundred thousand), but wrong is still wrong.

          Are all those other actions or ommissions wrong? Should we do away with them.

          All human endeavors have error. Should we end them all?

          Clearly not. But those errors should be sought out and remedied where possible.

          For the record, I cannot ever think of any situation where I would favor the state murdering someone in my name when another viable option, like life in prison, remains. Simple as that.

          • Dudley Sharp Says:

            Morally and legally, execution is not murder, anymore than incarceration is kidnapping or fines are theft, meaning, not at all.

            I prefer LWOP for some cases and execution for others, depending upon the nature of the crime.

            With the death penalty, the state is saving more lives in your name.

            Without the death penalty, the state is sparing murderers and sacrificing more innocents in your name.


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