Wednesday, March 11, 2009


The bottom line of capital punishment

I’ve frequently commented in these pages about my opposition to capital punishment — on moral grounds, on fairness grounds, on avoidance-of-error grounds. I haven’t, before now, considered economic grounds, but a number of state governments are now looking at that aspect:

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat and a Roman Catholic who has cited religious opposition to the death penalty in the past, is now arguing that capital cases cost three times as much as homicide cases where the death penalty is not sought. “And we can’t afford that,” he said, “when there are better and cheaper ways to reduce crime.”

Lawmakers in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and New Hampshire have made the same argument in recent months as they push bills seeking to repeal the death penalty, and experts say such bills have a good chance of passing in Maryland, Montana and New Mexico.

The high cost — in dollars — of death-penalty cases has come up many times, of course, but it’s only recently that it’s been a factor in such legislation.

Capital cases are expensive because the trials tend to take longer, they typically require more lawyers and more costly expert witnesses, and they are far more likely to lead to multiple appeals.
But it’s worse than that. Here’s a point that really shows the irony of spending all the money and time it costs to go after a criminal’s life:
In New Mexico, lawmakers who support the repeal bill have pointed out that despite the added expense, most defendants end up with life sentences anyway.
The numbers in Maryland since 1978 bear that out:
  • Death penalty sought in 162 cases.
  • 56 of the cases (about 35%) got it. But...
  • ...most of those were overturned and changed to prison time.
  • In the end, 10 stuck (6%). 5 executed, 5 waiting.

Even if there were no other reasons to oppose the death penalty, this would be compelling.

Of course, those who like capital punishment say that “such measures are short-sighted and will result in more crime and greater costs to states down the road. At a time when police departments are being scaled down to save money, the role of the death penalty in deterring certain crimes is more important than ever, they say.”

But the fact is that study after study has shown that capital punishment — or the threat of it — is not an effective deterrent.[1]

So there we go: help the economy by joining the rest of the civilized world in eliminating the death penalty.

[1] Take, for example, Decker and Kohfeld, Criminal Justice Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, 173-191 (1990):

This study examines the effect of the death penalty on the murder rate. A 50-year time series is employed for the period 1930-1980 for the five states with the largest number of executions during this period: Georgia, New York, Texas, California, and North Carolina. Taken together, these five states accounted for 40 percent of all the executions performed during this period. Incorporating a lag structure for the effect of executions, as well as several theoretically relevant explanatory variables for homicides, the study identifies no deterrent effect for executions. Several different policy-relevant analyses are performed, all with the same result. Neither the existence of the death penalty, its imposition, nor the level of imposition explains significant amounts of the variation in homicide rates in the 50-year period, 1930 to 1980.
Or, more recently, Hjalmarsson, American Society of Criminology, 2009-02-03:
The vast majority of death penalty studies use geographically or temporally aggregated data. Such aggregation can make it virtually impossible to identify small amounts of variation in homicides due to executions. Therefore, this study uses data that is disaggregated down to daily and city levels to test whether executions have a short-term deterrent effect. Little evidence is found that Texas executions deter Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston homicides from 1999 to 2004. The analysis also does not consistently support the hypotheses that the deterrent effect should be more evident for local executions or executions that received local newspaper coverage.

1 comment:

Miss Profe said...

While I believe that capital punishment is no deterrent for crime, I have no empathy for pedeophiles. I wouldn't lose sleep if some of them found their way to the gurney.