Tags: Law Enforcement | exoneration | lwop | life | parole

How Much Longer Can We Afford the Death Penalty?

life without parole

(Sainam Poploy/Dreamstime)

By Tuesday, 21 July 2020 10:36 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Did you know the death penalty is one of the most expensive parts of our criminal justice system? It’s okay if you didn’t — you’re not alone.

Support for the death penalty is dwindling and has been for years. Among those that continue to cling to this policy, many will assert the falsehood that capital punishment saves taxpayer dollars.

I used to be one of them. It just seemed natural that executing someone would be cheaper than paying to house and feed them for the rest of their lives.

That isn’t to suggest this was my main reason for supporting the death penalty, but it was an assumed fact that backed up other false notions I had on the system.

In reality, we spend up to 10 times more for the death penalty than we do on the next most expensive sentence, which is life in prison without parole (LWOP).

Typically, a death penalty supporter will respond to this data with an assertion that the death penalty takes too long to carry out, and that’s why it’s so much more expensive. But that argument doesn’t make any sense.

The death penalty costs a million dollars more than a life without parole sentence, the longest sentence possible. So, the length of time between a sentence and execution does not explain away the additional costs.

Here’s what does.

A death penalty trial is far lengthier and more comprehensive than other trials.

It takes place in two parts, with a guilt/ innocence component, followed by a sentencing component. The length of the trial is significant: These cases have a longer jury selection (and housing) process.

They require more hours from all public employees (cops, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, court reporters) and those hourly wages are paid by the public. They often involve more expert testimony (those people are paid), and more forensic evidence and testing (those people are also paid). All of these items run up the tab quickly.

Ultimately 70% of the death penalty’s costs come from the trial alone.

And those costs are incurred even when the jury votes against a death sentence – which they do more often than not. New death sentences have plummeted in numbers since 2000 as juries typically vote for a less gruesome sentence (like LWOP) when given the choice.

Even when the jury does vote for a death sentence, the vast majority of people sentenced to death end up spending the rest of their lives in prison anyways. So, taxpayers predominately spend millions of dollars on capital cases for nothing more than what amounts to security theater.

Misguided state lawmakers have frequently suggested shortening the appellate process in order to cut costs around capital punishment. While this would do very little to actually reduce the price (because, again, most of the cost is up front at the trial), it would succeed in increasing the likelihood that the state will execute an innocent person.

Even with our current system, supposedly structured to be one of the best in the world, we’ve seen one person exonerated for every nine executions. "Exonerated" is a word we throw around a lot in the criminal justice community, but the average American has no idea what we’re talking about. I’ll break down what that means, and why this number is so significant.

It’s very difficult for an innocence case to work itself out of the system. I detailed why that is here, and for time’s sake won’t go back into it. In the unlikely chance a person is able to have their sentence overturned, a few things can happen.

First, the case can be overturned in the appellate process. Usually this is due to procedural issues or official misconduct, and typically the state just retries the case.

Secondarily, a person can have their case thrown out in the appellate process.

Alternatively, a person can take an Alford Plea — which essentially means the state recognizes a new trial would not be prudent, and the defendant is able to maintain their innocence while admitting the state’s evidence could reconvict them if pursued and accepting the guilty plea. In an Alford Plea, a person who was wrongfully convicted may be released, but they aren’t exonerated.

Exoneration is when a person is officially acquitted at a new trial (after a conviction is overturned, the state drops charges when a conviction is overturned, or after they are granted a pardon based on evidence of issues).

In order to meet this threshold, a person shows evidence that officially clears them of the crime (that could look like new DNA evidence, another person being found guilty of the crime, etc.). It’s not an easy barrier to meet, and the vast majority of people who were wrongfully convicted never end up officially exonerated.

Our justice system does not find people "innocent," but exoneration is as close as one can get. So, to say one person has been exonerated for every nine executions is truly a startling fact. Hundreds of others have been wrongfully convicted and released after serving time or executed before they were able to get the assistance they needed on their case.

To think that state lawmakers would consider removing a step in the appellate process in a system that results in death and gets it wrong so frequently is beyond reckless.

In reality, the only thing that will conserve taxpayer dollars around the death penalty is to end it. As states are increasingly grappling with looming state budget crises, the most expensive part of the criminal justice system (that gains us nothing and risks innocent lives everyday) should be an obvious cut.

Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Read Hannah Cox's Reports — More Here.

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HannahCox
Misguided state lawmakers have frequently suggested shortening the appellate process in order to cut costs around capital punishment. This would do very little to actually reduce the price.
exoneration, lwop, life, parole
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2020-36-21
Tuesday, 21 July 2020 10:36 AM
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