Letting Go of the Death Penalty

Most states are facing drastic cuts in vital services because of the recession. Schools, health care, and law enforcement will have to get by with less. Death penalty cases, however, stand out, demanding more money even as executions become less likely. In this economic climate, they may be a luxury we can no longer afford.

According to a recent report released by the Death Penalty Information Center, the death penalty is being used less and executions are being carried out in only a few states. Yet the costs are becoming more of an issue as the pressure to avoid the mistakes of the past has grown. There were 37 executions in 2008; 95% of them were in the South and almost half were in just one state -- Texas. Executions and death sentences have been steadily dropping throughout the current decade. But millions of taxpayer dollars have to be spent to keep the vast apparatus of capital punishment in place.

California, for example, has 670 people on death row. Each one of them costs the state about $90,000 per year over what it would cost to keep them in prison if they were condemned to permanent imprisonment instead. In total, the state is spending $138 million per year, but only executes less than one person every two years, according to a recent state commission report. In fact, it's been almost three years since the state carried out any executions. California is now planning a new death row that will cost an additional $400 million. At the same time, the state is facing an unprecedented deficit of billions of dollars and is cutting many vital services. The state commission called the death penalty system "broken," "dysfunctional," and "close to collapse." Only more expenditures, they said, could possibly save it.

Almost every state is facing a financial crisis and 36 states have the death penalty. In Maryland, a state commission heard testimony that the costs of the death penalty over the past 28 years amounted to $37 million per execution. In Florida, home to the second largest death row in the country, the cost estimates are $24 million per execution. The Los Angeles Times estimated that California spends $250 million per execution, when all the system's costs are taken into account.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Speeding up the appeals process or not paying lawyers adequate fees will end up costing states even more as trials will have to be done over a second time, or worse, result in the execution of innocent people. One hundred and thirty people have been exonerated from death row since 1973, including four in 2008. It took over 9 years on average between the conviction and the exoneration in these cases.

With all of these mistakes, the death penalty system has become slower and shows no signs speeding up. The average time between sentencing and execution increased to 12.7 years for those executed in 2007, the third year in a row in which the time has been over 12 years. For some cases in California, it took 25 years for a capital case to be completed, according to the state commission.

All of this expense and delay might be justified if there were some tangible benefit resulting from the death penalty. But for many victims' family members and representatives of law enforcement, the frustration and uncertainty of the death penalty make the option of a sentence of permanent imprisonment more reasonable. Only about 1% of the murders committed in this country result in a death sentence, and only a small percentage of those sentenced to death are ever executed many years later. Such a system makes little sense financially, or even retributively.

In the past, people were often scared into believing that the death penalty was needed to be tough on crime. Today, the death penalty is more like a bridge to nowhere--an expensive government program that does not advance the general good. It may be time to let this extravagance go.

Richard C. Dieter is the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center.