Giving death penalty the chop

This is now a week old, but the New York Times ran an editorial last Sunday arguing for the elimination of the death penalty on budget grounds (in addition to reasons of morality), which is something I discussed last May in an update to a post on California’s budget crisis. It’s one of the many contradictions in modern American conservatism: a professed fiscal conservatism and a tough-on-crime stance that requires the perpetuation of expensive money sucks, such as the war on drugs and the death penalty. Most people don’t realize just how expensive the death penalty really is, compared with life without parole.

Here’s what I wrote in the post in May:

The ACLU of Northern California just emailed me to recommend I link you all to their proposal to save the state $1 billion in 5 years. Their proposal rests on the premise that the death penalty is significantly more expensive than life imprisonment, as several studies have shown. The governor has proposed selling state lands to cover the fiscal crisis, including the San Quintin State Prison (death row), and thus the ACLU’s proposal makes sense. If you go to the preceding link from The Economist on the costs of the death penalty, they actually suggest that states are more likely to consider ending or suspending the death penalty as a cost-saving measure during the recession.

Honestly, I think the ACLU is completely right. I’d rather keep social safety nets for abused women (on the governor’s list of cuts in the main link in the post), than continue executing people, if we’re choosing between the two.

However, I didn’t enumerate the costs, except in the comments briefly… but the New York Times did, based on “evidence gathered by the Death Penalty Information Center,” which opposes the death penalty:

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.

To really put it in perspective, they looked at a few states that continue to use the death penalty and they determined the average cost per executed person.

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.

That’s a lot of money that could be used more productively or cut to ease state deficits during the present fiscal crisis. I don’t know if the $1 billion saved in 5 years claim by the ACLU of Northern California, is too optimistic, but just eliminating the $114 mil/year saves $570 million in five years, and that’s still a significant figure, and their sources calculate it’s $125 million not a $114 million. Furthermore, there are future cost increases projected for states such as California that will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars soon on new facilities to expand for the lengthening death row.

And of course, there are always the moral reasons, including the execution of innocent people. Let’s join the civilized world and save a bunch of money at the same time. Give death penalty the chop.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?

One of the main arguments in support of the death penalty is that with all of the litigation and the many years of waiting on death row, it would be impossible to execute an innocent person. Given that a number of prisoners on death row have been exonerated by DNA evidence, there may indeed have been some innocent people killed (since DNA evidence is not present in every crime, despite what we see on CSI). Until now, however, there has never been one case that we can say with a good amount of certainty that the man was probably innocent. From the New Yorker’s David Grann comes the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for starting a fire that killed his three children. Though the evidence seemed airtight at the time of the trial, there are some serious holes. The arson experts who studied the house had no real scientific training. There was never any motive for the murders. The prosecution had convinced the jury that a Led Zepplin poster and a skull tattoo were evidence of cult-like actions. Nevertheless, Willingham was executed. In recent years, Texas has been reviewing the evidence and may state next year that they believe he was innocent. If that happens, it will be a major landmark in our national debate over the death penalty.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.