Viewpoint: Death penalty’s real cost


Published February 19, 2013

Let’s talk chump change, pocket change, nickels and dimes — that lucky penny you see on the floor but walk right past because ultimately, hey, what good is a penny in the grand scheme of things? Now let’s talk millions. $308 million to be exact. We just changed ball games there — not sure if you noticed.

When someone says the death penalty is more expensive than a life without parole, they seem wrong. However, they’re in fact telling the truth. The death penalty is millions of federal and state tax dollars more expensive than a life in prison without parole. In California it costs an estimated $308 million per execution. While this is a morally charged issue, at that price do we really care what crime the defendant committed?

In 2012, California voted on the abolishment of the death penalty. Since 1977, the current flawed system has cost the state about $4 billion dollars. With 725 people on death row, California warehouses almost 25 percent of the country’s total death row population. It costs about $47,000 to incarcerate a man for one year in California, but it costs $90,000 extra per year to house a man on death row. This puts the annual death row bill at $137,000 per person. The cost of one year in general population is derived from mainly security and health care, but also includes food, rehabilitation programs and facility costs. Additional death row costs include the officer, or officers, constantly escorting the inmates in and out of their prison cells. Each person awaiting a death sentence is placed in an individual cell, while those in general population typically share a cell. Individual supervision is also required for the two hours of physical recreation time inmates receive daily.

These are the only costs of incarceration. The court fees are where the bulk of the costs lie. The trial for death sentences takes three to five times longer, needs twice as many lawyers, has a far more difficult jury selection process and has a practically endless appeals process as opposed to life without parole cases. Of the 725 people on death row in California, only thirteen have exhausted the appeals process. The majority of individuals on death row are poor. Tax dollars are funding virtually the entire process. However, the answer is not to try and repair this practice because every time a state has attempted to mend it, the death penalty has become unconstitutional. Less than 2 percent of the criminals who commit the most shocking of crimes are sentenced to the death penalty. After the 2008 recession and more stringent economic policies with the federal deficit at the forefront of discussion, it’s time to look at this issue from a new angle.

The public is a finicky group to understand, and especially the American public. People are rarely aware of when or why they change their opinions on political issues unless the change was derived from a radical experience. In the case of capital punishment, the radical experiences are typically nationwide and are delivered to individuals by the media. If the key factor to changing the public’s attitude stems from radical experience, then it’s possible that presenting radical enough information would be able to change public opinion and, in turn, public policy. When a singular execution costs millions, and the system in general generates a bill to the tune of billions of state and federal tax dollars, perhaps we’ve reached “radical enough.” Politicians are seen as flippant if they take a monumental policy, such as capital punishment, and continually change their stance.

Economics produces hard facts — just as hard as scientific facts. So, if radical enough economic facts were disseminated amongst the public, those may potentially sway the people. Money affects all of us — people have to pay taxes. That $308 million being spent per execution in California comes from state and federal taxes. That means that every U.S. citizen is directly affected. Most people don’t realize that a death sentence is more expensive than life without parole. The economics of the death penalty may be radical enough to change public opinion.

So what if people knew? What if the general public suddenly became aware of this completely counterintuitive fact? Would it have an impact? It seems yes. National support for the death penalty tends to be around 63 percent, and yet only 53 percent of California supported the practice when they voted in 2012. We can never know what exactly changed their minds, but we do know that it was on the ballot. Maybe if California — if not America — understands just how big the bill we’re footing is; we can change the minds of U.S citizens and the policies of our nation.

Molly Harwood is an LSA senior.