To the many excellent reasons to abolish the death penalty — it’s immoral, does not deter murder and affects minorities disproportionately — we can add one more. It’s an economic drain on governments with already badly depleted budgets.
It is far from a national trend, but some legislators have begun to have second thoughts about the high cost of death row. Others would do well to consider evidence gathered by the Death Penalty Information Center, a research organization that opposes capital punishment.
States waste millions of dollars on winning death penalty verdicts, which require an expensive second trial, new witnesses and long jury selections. Death rows require extra security and maintenance costs.
There is also a 15-to-20-year appeals process, but simply getting rid of it would be undemocratic and would increase the number of innocent people put to death. Besides, the majority of costs are in the pretrial and trial.
According to the organization, keeping inmates on death row in Florida costs taxpayers $51 million a year more than holding them for life without parole. North Carolina has put 43 people to death since 1976 at $2.16 million per execution. The eventual cost to taxpayers in Maryland for pursuing capital cases between 1978 and 1999 is estimated to be $186 million for five executions.
Perhaps the most extreme example is California, whose death row costs taxpayers $114 million a year beyond the cost of imprisoning convicts for life. The state has executed 13 people since 1976 for a total of about $250 million per execution. This is a state whose prisons are filled to bursting (unconstitutionally so, the courts say) and whose government has imposed doomsday-level cuts to social services, health care, schools and parks.
Money spent on death rows could be spent on police officers, courts, public defenders, legal service agencies and prison cells. Some lawmakers, heeding law-enforcement officials who have declared capital punishment a low priority, have introduced bills to abolish it.A Republican state senator in Kansas, Carolyn McGinn, pointed out that her state, which restored the death penalty in 1994, had not executed anybody in more than 40 years. In February, she introduced a bill to replace capital punishment with life without parole. The bill gained considerable attention but stalled. Similar arguments were made, unsuccessfully, in states such as New Hampshire and Maryland. Colorado considered a bill to end capital punishment and spend the money saved on solving cold cases. But this year, only New Mexico went all the way, abolishing executions in March.