The death penalty, often viewed as an effective and cost-efficient way to deter and punish crime, is actually neither.
Placing someone on death row takes longer and costs more than sentencing him to life imprisonment, according to statistics from the Death Penalty Information Center. Life imprisonment is therefore a more resourceful way to deal with serious crime.
The economically-conscious will argue that execution is a cost-effective alternative to life imprisonment. Sentencing a criminal to life imprisonment without parole requires taxpayers to financially support him for the rest of his life, which could last 40 – 60 years or more. A lethal injection, on the other hand, is a one-time expense. Over in seven minutes.
But research shows that the legal process sanctioning that injection is even more expensive than supporting the criminal for life: “A death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years,” according to research by The Dallas Morning News on Texas’ death-penalty laws.
Scientific research backs up The Dallas Morning News’ findings. One study found that, in the state of Oregon, it costs an average of $2.3 million dollars to obtain a death sentence. Obtaining a life sentence or a term of years in Oregon, however, only costs the state around $1.3 million. A recent study on Nebraska’s death-penalty legislation revealed that it costs taxpayers $1.5 million more to prosecute a death-penalty case in Nebraska than a life-without-parole case.
The state of Maryland paid an estimated $186 million for death-penalty cases prosecuted between 1978 and 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Five convicts were executed in Maryland during that time.
Well then, cut the red tape, supporters of capital punishment say. Reduce the number of appeals allowed. Shorten the legal process so it’s quicker and less expensive.
The problem is that shortening the process dramatically increases the risk of a mistaken conviction. Considering the finitude of human knowledge, the jury cannot possibly know everything there is to know about the case. The jury can make mistakes, especially regarding the 5 – 10 percent of defendants who are mentally ill, and accidentally sentencing an innocent person to death amounts to murder. It deprives the victim of his most fundamental human right: the right to life.
Rather than proving we need a shorter legal process, the difficulty of obtaining a death sentence points toward a deeper reason there shouldn’t be a death sentence at all. The death penalty gives a jury, a group of human beings, the power to decide whether another human being lives or dies. This power cannot be taken lightly: as thorough as the legal process is, it cannot possibly be unerring, because, as the poet Alexander Pope proverbially quipped, “to err is human.” And an erroneous judgement in a death-penalty case is too devastating to be worth the risk.
Even if capital punishment is just at the time of conviction, many convicts who are ultimately executed show signs of reform while in prison, making their execution unnecessary by the time it’s carried out.
Some death-row inmates become born-again Christians while incarcerated, according to the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Four women have been sentenced to death since 1976; two of them converted to Christianity while imprisoned. One of the two, Karla Faye Tucker, was convicted in 1983 of murdering two people with a pickaxe. However, her conversion to Christianity on death row prompted many to plead for her release, including relatives of both her victims, one of the jurors that convicted her, and her arresting officer. These people had more cause than anyone to want Tucker dead, and their deep connection to her crime would make them the most difficult to convince she had changed. They were not merely convinced; they pleaded for mercy on her behalf, showing that her reformation was genuine and that she deserved a chance to live behind bars. Nonetheless, her sentence stood, and she was executed on Feb. 3, 1998.
While it is impossible to know the true contents of a person’s heart, conversions in prison are more likely to be legitimate because there can be no ulterior motive. As Tucker’s execution proves, the convict has nothing to gain from an artificial display of moral reform. If her conversion is sincere, her execution simply cuts a life short, a life that could have been spared without adversely affecting society. And considering how much more expensive it is to kill her, society would be better off letting her live.
At best, the death penalty has no effect and, at worst, an inverse effect on crime-rate statistics. Although homicide is a capital crime, states with the death penalty have consistently higher homicide rates than states without it. More than 80 percent of executions occur in the South, but the South still has the highest murder rate of any region in the United States.
The death penalty makes no sense, from either an economic or humanitarian perspective. Taxpayers pay more money in order to send criminals to their deaths, sometimes unnecessarily and occasionally unjustly. The high homicide rates in states with the death penalty shows that capital punishment does not deter criminals from committing capital crimes. The death penalty is therefore ineffective, inefficient, expensive, and unjust, and it should be abolished.