Measuring Death Row: The Cost of Killing and the Devaluation of Life

By Michelle Chen Oct 24, 2009

Of all the adjectives opponents use to describe the death penalty—cruel, oppressive, racist—the word “wasteful” probably doesn’t leap to mind. But if you can’t appeal to people’s consciences, you might as well try to get them through their pocketbook. So the Death Penalty Information Center’s new report, "Smart on Crime", examines the cold hard numbers and finds a neat convergence between economics and justice. Drawing from interviews and other studies, the analysis argues that nationwide, the public costs of keeping capital punishment on the books and keeping thousands on death row are simply not cost effective. As states struggle with fiscal crisis, that should prompt lawmakers to rethink the whether executing people makes financial sense. The argument might be discomforting to those who oppose the death penalty on ethical grounds. But it might be necessary if civil rights advocates want to show the pragmatism of abolition to lawmakers like Governor Rick Perry of Texas (where protesters will rally this weekend to demand abolition). Though the DPIC says that studies on death penalty’s deterrent effect are largely inconclusive, according to one study, “[T]he consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment.” But the main point of the report is that the death penalty adds significant costs without significant returns in the form of public safety. At the same time, budget crunches are undermining resources for more basic components of the law enforcement system. Some examples:

• Public defenders in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida are overburdened with caseloads of 400 felonies a year, even though national standards set a limit of 150.

• Legal service organizations that provide help to indigent clients in civil matters depend on income from interest rates that are tied to the Federal Reserve’s benchmark interest rate. When that rate fell nearly to zero, many legal service organizations were forced to cut staff 20%, just when their services were most needed.

Litigating capital punishment is also costly. The DPIC estimates that the death penalty might cost $30 million per execution. The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice put the cost per execution at $250 million, a function of the low rate of actual executions combined with the vast bureaucracy that must be mobilized to push through a death sentence. The DPIC contends that for some states like New York, it’s virtually impossible to justify the enormous overhead costs due to the infrequency of actual executions. The DPIC concludes that in the end, the money might be better spent on things other than the carnal satisfaction prosecutors may feel at the sight of a death row inmate strapped to a lethal injection table:

Where studies have been done, the excess expenditures per year for the death penalty typically are close to $10 million per state.31 If a new police officer (or teacher, or ambulance driver) is paid $40,000 per year, this death penalty money could be used to fund 250 additional workers in each state to secure a better community.

And from a policy standpoint, the money that states sink into the death penalty and other lock-em-up tactics seems inherently ineffective, given the disturbing number of wrongful convictions that have piled up over the years. Nonetheless, applying a cost-benefit analysis to the death penalty is a perilously limited framework. Since the price of execution, in fiscal terms, is so absurdly skewed, it must be that alongside hidden “costs” of the death penalty are hidden benefits. In reality, there may be a certain kind of social capital to be gained from the symbolism of state-sponsored killing—a kind of cultural and political power that is broadcast through the idea of putting people to death. It may not deter crime, but it does enforce hierarchy and deter dissent in ways that even officials and elites who benefit from the policy may not consciously understand. Likewise, the costs that society absorbs in the form of desensitization to state violence, the demonization of youth and communities of color, and growing disillusionment with the criminal justice system, could never be measured in a dollar amount. That’s why a racial justice analysis of the death penalty can fill in some of the conceptual gaps when examining why states cling stubbornly to the power to kill. The recently enacted Racial Justice Act of North Carolina, for example, tries to contemplate the political economy of death sentences in terms of structural racial bias throughout the criminal justice system. The specter of death row affirms the establishment consensus, the subrosa belief that civic order depends on pushing the Other—whose race and social status runs counter to the official norm—as far outside the community as possible, to where our moral sensibilities can’t reach. Image: Texas Moratorium Network