The Economic Values of Capital Punishment

There is a plethora of controversy surrounding the use of capital punishment.


There is a plethora of controversy surrounding the use of capital punishment. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, capital punishment is defined as “punishment by death for a serious crime.” Many factors play a role in deciding if capital punishment should or should not be used in the United States: religion, money, and politics. This paper will mainly be focused on the economic effects that the death penalty has in the United States, essentially asking the question, “does the economic impact of the death penalty justify or nullify capital punishment?”

A research group located in Washington, DC who act as a public advocate for educating the general public about the prison system conducted a study called “The Sentencing Project.” ABC News reported on the study that “since 1984, a record-breaking 206,268 inmates were serving life with possible parole, life without parole, or virtual life sentences in 2016—1 out of 7 people in prison in the United States.” This astounding number of people who are incarcerated for life creates a huge economic dent in the United States. Keeping a person in prison annually costs an estimated $28,284 per prisoner (Law Dictionary).

To get an understanding of how much the US currently spends on the prison system, we multiply the estimated cost per prisoner by the number of prisoners serving a life sentence, “25 years before becoming eligible for parole consideration” according to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, a part of the executive branch of Georgia's government. It amounts to $707,100 per prisoner over a span of 25 years. The cost of living per prisoner has been increasing for the past few decades, which means that as the incarceration population inflates, taxpayers are going to have to pay more and more each year.

It is a common misconception that the death penalty is less expensive than the life sentence. In researching capital punishment, “Cases without the death penalty cost $740,000, while cases where the death penalty is sought to cost $1.26 million. Maintaining each death row prisoner costs taxpayers $90,000 more per year than a prisoner in general population” (Death Penalty Information Center). Although prisoners on death row are in prison for a shorter amount of time, they tend to cost more than the average prisoner. Death row prisoners cost more than prisoners serving life sentences because of the legal consults, judges, and hours of work that go into determining if a prisoner is subject to capital punishment. Because the death penalty is considered the most consequential punishment for a prisoner, there must be no mistakes when convicting a person of such a heinous crime and punishing them by death.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, "the United States' primary source for criminal justice statistics," “of the 2,979 people on death row in 2013, 39 were executed, and 31 died of natural causes, suicide, or murder by another inmate, according to BJS numbers” (Vocative). This means that of the 2,909 prisoners that had been on death row, only 70 prisoners died, and of that number, only 55 percent were executed through the prison system. Sarah Kaufman, a reporter for the media base Vocative in New York, stated, “299 death row inmates from 2000 to 2013 died of means other than execution, while 761 were executed” (Vocative), which exemplifies the issue of how the time being consumed by the waiting period for prisoners on death row is wasting the money of taxpayers.

The same problem occurs with the death penalty that occurs with a life sentence; over time, more people will be incarcerated. More prisons will be built to handle the increasing prisoner population. More judges, lawyers, and legal servants will be needed as well. This increase in the demand of prisoner supplies will only cost the taxpayers more money. Therefore, there are economic disadvantages for each incarceration situation.

Through this data, it becomes apparent that the more economically reasonable path in the incarceration of prisoners is not death row, but it is instituting life sentences. Not only is this a less expensive form of punishment for the taxpayers, but it also eliminates the chance of falsely convicting an innocent person and punishing them with an irreversible legal punishment. For example, in 1989, a man by the name of Carlos DeLuna had been convicted of murder and which resulted in his execution. Unfortunately, DeLuna was proven innocent in 2012, 23 years after he had been executed. Because DeLuna’s punishment was capital punishment, the huge mistake made by the judge and the court was irreversible. Therefore, issuing life sentences instead of death sentences is a more appropriate option when mistakes in the legal prison system are bound to happen.

Consequently, when mistakes like false conviction and execution are made, more money is used to solve them. “A New York teen who was convicted in his parents' 1988 murder and spent 17 years in prison before being exonerated” (CBS News). Marty Tankleff was a teen when he was falsely convicted for murdering his parents and was not proven innocent until his case was revisited in 2005. Through his exoneration, Tankleff won an estimated $3.6 million in his settlement against New York State. Although taxpayers did not have to pay any money in the settlement, as it was against the state, taxpayers did pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep a man in jail that was innocent. So, no matter the circumstance, taxpayers will continue to pay into the prison system.

Due to these instances like the wrongful execution of Carlos DeLuna and incarceration of Marty Tankleff, it is clear to see that mistakes are bound to happen, especially in a prison system that consists of well over two million people. And because mistakes happen, it is hard to ignore the harrowing truth that there must have been more people who were innocent but were proven guilty and have either served life sentences or faced execution. Taxpayers may pay to maintain the prison system, but because of accidents like oversight of essential facts and miscalculation of events, tax dollars are being wasted. Looking back at the DeLuna incident, because the prison system has been proven to be faulty, tax dollars have been wasted on attorneys, judges, and court time that were not useful in the end as the mistakes made were large and irreversible.

When answering the question, “does the economic impact of the death penalty justify or nullify capital punishment under certain circumstances,” economically, prison for life is less expensive than the death penalty. Therefore, the economic impact is a nullifying factor of capital punishment. Nevertheless, the current day incarceration system continues to demand more and more money from the average taxpayer. And with the more problems that arise, there will be a higher demand for money to keep felons (hopefully guilty) locked up. In the next few decades, hopefully our legal system will develop a more effective and efficient form of punishment that serves justice, but also does not drain the pockets of taxpayers as the national prisoner population increases.

Whether it is the death penalty or life in prison, currently, the prison system consumes an average 5 percent of state budgets according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which is a "nonpartisan research and policy institute pursuing federal and state policies." Although the option of a life sentence is less expensive compared to capital punishment, there is really no clear economic savvy option that would save money. Unfortunately, over time, prisoner population will continue to increase, demanding more money for prisons for overflow prisoners, more security, and more necessities for the prison system.

Finally, it is not up to me as the writer to decide whether the death penalty or the life sentence is the correct option when dealing with prisoners who have committed such a serious crime, but it is up to the readers. This paper elucidates the economic benefits to life in prison, as the death penalty is more expensive. Not only does the death penalty cost tax payers more money annually, but it carries the burden of creating an immense problem if a mistake is made, as it is not possible to bring someone back from the dead. Therefore, the more economic savvy option is the life sentence.

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The Economic Values of Capital Punishment