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.