Introduction & Literary Review
The death penalty is the most serious sanction one can receive in today s criminal justice system. This sanction can be brought about mostly for the conviction of murder in the first degree. For the charge of murder in the first degree, most states require it to be murder plus other aggravating circumstances. However, this varies from state to state and in the federal government.
The United States of America has had the death penalty as a punishment since the beginning of its existence as a colony back in 1608 (Costanzo 1994). When European settlers first settled the new colonies they brought with them the idea of English law and its punishments.
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Over the years crimes punishments have been vagrant, heresy, witchcraft, rape, murder, slave owner offenses and other acts that threatened the prevailing social order (Costanzo 1994). As times moved on, citizens moved away from the less serious crimes having a punishment of death to only the more serious crime carrying the punishment. And today, 37 states and the federal government have the death penalty as sanctions for the convicted criminals of the most serious offenses.
The death penalty has been in effect in the United States for most of the country s existence. Only during a brief time period from 1972 to 1976 was the death penalty not used by states. The reason for this was because of the Furman v. Georgia (1972) Supreme Court case. The Supreme Court found that the death penalty, as prescribed in most state laws, was unconstitutional by violation of the Eighth Amendment in that it was cruel and unusual punishment.
Four years later in 1976, the supreme Court case of Gregg v. Georgia the court overruled its previous decision by saying that the death penalty could be used as punishment again if the states rewrote the governing laws and included guidelines established by the Supreme Court. Now, today 37 states and the Federal Government have established the penalty once again, this time within the guidelines of the Supreme Court.
Before the Court made the 1972 ruling in Furman v. Georgia executions of convicted criminals were common in the United States. Most executions took place in the 1930 s with 1935 having the most in a single year with 199 (Costanzo 1994). Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, there have been a little more than 200 persons executed in the United States.
The way these convicted criminals are executed depends on the state in which the crime was committed. For those states that have the death penalty as a sanction the following table will depict the method of execution:
Method of Execution Number of States Used By
Lethal Injection 22
Lethal Gas 7
Firing Squad 2*
+ May not equal 37 due to that some states use two or more methods (Maguire, 1993)
The death penalty is throughout the country. Proponents of the death penalty argue that it is a specific and general deterrent to crime and that it is less expensive to kill someone than to let them spend life in prison living off taxpayers’ dollars. Opponents argue that there is no evidence of the death penalty being an effective deterrent to crime. They also argue that it is wrong for the government of the state to take a life. Further, they would argue that innocent people could be killed (Clear and Cole). Another reason for the lack of support for the death penalty is the extreme cost it and the amount of time the whole process takes.
The current economic burden of the death penalty prevents capital punishment from being an effective crime deterrent.
The Cost of the Death Penalty
The act of killing a convicted individual is not expensive. For a firing squad to send five bullets downrange the total expense of the rounds would be about $2.00. To purchase the cyanide pill dropped in water to create the lethal gas would be under $1.00. The expensive cost of killing an individual comes from the entire process through which one must travel when faced with a sentence of death. It certainly is an expensive process said Ronald M. George, a justice on the California Supreme Court. It has to be in order to be fair (Verhovek 1995).
In order to make sure the due process of law is upheld and that the defendant gets every possible opportunity not to be put to death, more safeguards are established in to the procedures of pretrial, jury selection, trial, and the appeals process (Verhovek 1995). The Supreme Court established these safeguards.
Examples of these safeguards include a more detailed investigation of the defendant s life, on average two to six more pretrial motions, the trials take longer and the lawyers have to investigate the primary charge of the murder in the first degree s well as the other circumstances that allow the charge to carry a penalty of death. Layers are expected to spend then to twelve more hours of labor on a death penalty case than a case where the punishment is life in prison.
The longest part of the whole process is the appeals process. This can last up to a decade and sometimes beyond. The reason is that the Supreme Court demands that the defendant is allowed to exhaust all his appeals so that an innocent person is not killed. The actual costs of this process are atrocious. Some of the following quotes should add insight to the cost of the death penalty process.
Because of the lengthy legal process of motions, hearings, and appeals, the death penalty is extraordinarily expensive. Florida spent almost $60 million during a 15-year period in which only 18 executions took place, an average of more than $3 million ahead. The death penalty in Texas costs an average of $2 million, about three times the cost of sending someone to prison in a high-security facility for 40 years( Quindlen, 1994).
Recent studies show that it can easily cost a state a million dollars or more to carry an indigent prisoner, and most murderers tend to fall in this category, through a jury trial and the years of appeals and delays before his execution. One of the studies that convinced New Yorkers not to return to the death penalty in 1982 had the total cost of trial appeals pegged at $1.8 million. More than twice what it would cost to keep even the youngest and hungriest prisoner alive and behind bars for the rest of his life (Brown 1989).
If the person was executed 10 years after the sentence (current average), the savings on prison costs would amount to about $166, 000 meaning that the net cost to the taxpayers for the death penalty was $163,000 [ in North Carolina] After studying the cost of housing and guarding inmates as the wait on death row, the researchers concluded that the extra cost to the state of each execution actually carried out was $2.16 million (Brown 1989).
As one can see, the Death penalty is not cheap for any state. Another great expense is that of the less conventional means. This cost is called opportunity costs. By definition, this is what could have been purchased with the money used for the death penalty (Costanzo 1994). By using the millions and millions of dollars in other areas states might be able to get more for the amount of money spending. Just think of the possibilities or opportunities for that money is overwhelming. By using this money in other places, it might be possible to get better alternatives to the death penalty, as I will discuss later.
In the next section of this paper, I will examine some interesting information about the states of Florida and Texas. Above we saw that the cost of the death penalty in these two states was in the millions. I will examine how that cost fits in with the rest of their correctional costs on the state level.
Texas and Florida: Where does the money come from?
As we have seen before Florida and Texas have some very high expenses associated with the death penalty. The average cost to try, sentence, and go through the appeals process in Florida for a person sentenced to death is $3 million dollars (Verhovek 1995). In Texas, that figure is slightly smaller at $2 million dollars. These figures are atrocious(Verhovek et al 1995). Where can a state find that much money in its correctional system to afford to deal with these cases every year? As of April 20, 1994, there were 330 persons on death row in Florida.
At $3 million each, by the time there are executed, should all of them have that end, they will have cost the state about $990 million dollars(Verhovek et al. 1995). That s without the addition of any more individuals to death row. In Texas, where the number on death row is 386 that figure is about $772 million(Verhovek et al 1995). The amount of money for this process between these two states alone is enough to purchase one aircraft carrier and all the planes, people and staff needed to run it.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, these two states have between them enough money to establish and carry through one death penalty case a year in Texas (Maguire et al. 1993). With the majority of the allotted money, each year going to institutions it is difficult to see where the money for these cases comes from.
The figures I found in the Sourcebook do not go into a great deal about the prosecution and public defender’s office. However, to compare states, California has set up an annual allotment of money for the public defender s office that handles only appellate level death penalty case cases. California allocates $8 million a year to this office. Only with the help of a full-time officer to recruit private lawyers can the state maintain an adequate defense for indigent offenders (Verhovek et al. 1995).
To show how bad a condition this in California, the private lawyers hired by the state are only paid a flat fee that ranges from $75,000 to $200,000 to some times more (Verhovek et al. 1995). The cost of the death penalty and all that goes with it are astronomical. In looking at Florida, Texas, and California (these states also have the most individuals on death row) we can gain some insight in how tough it is for some states to find money to try, sentence, and got through the appeals process with convicted criminals. Next, we shall look at what happens when states decide to have the death penalty and the impact that decision has on the rest of the state criminal justice programs.
The Sierra County, California District Attorney:
If we didn’t have to pay $500,000 a pop for Sacramento s murders, I d have an Investigator and the sheriff would have a couple of extra deputies and we could do some lasting good for Sierra County law enforcement ( Ross 1995).
The Dallas County, Texas District Attorney:
I think we could use [the money] better for additional penitentiary space, rehabilitation efforts, drug rehabilitation, education [and] especially devotes a lot of attention to juveniles (Ross 1995).
This is not the regular pleading of agency directors for more money in their annual budgets. These are statements where these individuals are trying to reason with the public to go away from the trend to kill those who kill and get more progress for the taxes they pay. Unfortunately, these pleas are ignored. In New Jersey and other states, there exists an alternative program for sentences outside of prison. The newest one is intensive probation.
This is where a person goes to jail for about six months then upon release is put on a probation casebook with about 20 to 30 criminals. From here these individuals will be contacted daily by their probation officers to monitor and counsel them. This program costs about $6,000 per year (Verhovek et al 1995). For regular probation, the cost is about one-tenth of that at $600 per year per individual (Verhovek et al 1995). Then if the person disobeys the guidelines established by the court for his/her probation they will most likely be sent to prison. The cost for one person to spend one year in prison is about $13,000 (Dworkin and Laor Thomas 1986).
While that person in prison he/she can work and earn money to pay restitution for the crime they committed. However, the opposite is true for those inmates on death row. Typically, death row inmates are not allowed to work and thus do not contribute to cost (Dieter 1989). By this action not only do taxpayers get the short end of the stick with the cost of the whole process but while their taxpayers do not get the traditional help of an imprisoned inmate.
Above I mentioned the costs of probation. This method of alternative to prison is not an acceptable one for the crime of murder, for which a person sentenced to the death penalty a state could offer more of these alternatives to individuals who will profit from such an experience, rather than rot away in jail. The recidivism rate that accompanies some of the alternatives is worth the cost of the program. An example of this is the New York City Work Program in which criminals are forced to give to the community by cleaning it up or renovating an apartment or house or by cleaning up an alleyway for kids to play. The recidivism rate for this alternative is 50% of the people who participate are arrested in six months, which is equal to those sentenced to jail. According to one commentator some discouraging results for less money (Gworkin et al.. 1986).
There are more than enough ways to put money being used by those on death row to better and productive use. Although many of the alternative programs aren’t suitable for the person on death row that money can be used elsewhere where it would do more good. Michael Ross put it best in a statement he wrote:
I m already behind bars and no longer a threat to society, but for every dollar spent to assure my death .means a dollar less towards the funding of more police, more prison cells, neighborhood watch programs or toward another program aimed at reducing crime ( Ross 1995).
The process of going through pretrial, trial, sentencing, and appeals are long, complicated, and expensive. Now add the fact that the charge carries with it a sentence of death and that process becomes even more complicated, longer, and two or three times more expensive. The cost for such a process is in no hope of going down either. The Supreme Court decided that in requiring states to have more access to appeals and different processes for the offender facing a sentence of death.
Legislators should come up with new ways to streamline this process and make it more affordable. Until this happens states and taxpayers will keep on spending more and more money for lawyers, investigators, expert witnesses, and the appeals process for those sentenced to death.
For those who wish to further investigate the subject of the cost benefit of capital punishment, I would like to suggest other areas of focus that ate not discussed in this paper. First, try to get more recent material. Although the references used in this paper are correct, they are somewhat out of date.
Secondly, I would suggest that there be more emphasis on alternatives. There are vast amounts of alternatives to the death penalty. The research presented here does not give the true scope as to how effective alternative programs can truly be. Finally, I would suggest spending more time in the literature review. This coincides with the idea of acquiring sources that are more current. If I would have allotted the proper amount of time to this project I believe that there could have been a truer picture painted of the cost-benefit analysis of capital punishment.
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