A Fiscally Conservative Case to Abolish the Death Penalty


Most of the debate surrounding the death penalty is about whether it is moral or immoral for society to execute someone. That is not the question of this article, so check your bleeding hearts at the door. Rather, I will seek to determine whether state execution of criminals is economically sound. That is, whether the cost of executing an individual is greater than the cost of incarcerating that same person for life. 

Fact: the average cost to incarcerate an inmate in federal prison was $25,251 in 2009 according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. However, in conducting research for a federal sentencing memorandum, I found studies of prison populations that show older prisoners — because of accelerated aging due to stress and poor living conditions — cost two to three times more per year to incarcerate. Thus, as a person serves a life sentence, the cost to incarcerate them increases dramatically. Additionally, due to the previously mentioned accelerated aging, many prison systems classify persons as young as 50 as old. 

Thus, to incarcerate a 25-year-old federal prisoner would cost $631,275.00 for the next twenty-five years. Again, the annual cost would double or even triple as he ages so assuming he lives an additional 25 years and using the conservative estimate of the cost doubling, the next 25 years would cost $1,262,550.00. In total, it would cost $1,893,825.00 to incarcerate him for the next 50 years until he is 75. Judge Richard Posner, of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in writing about the economics of the death penalty noted that the average time spent on death row by inmates before execution is ten years. Thus, to incarcerate the same prisoner for 10 years would cost just $252,510.00.  

According to the website uscourts.gov, the median cost to defend death penalty cases where the case goes to trial is $465,602. Median figures are generally more representative than average or mean figures, but for the sake of full disclosure, the mean cost was $620,932. This is based on data from 1998 to 2004, and the study notes that since that time, the maximum hourly rate for federal defenders has increased from $125 to $178 (the full study can be found here). Thus, it is likely the costs have gone up since the study was concluded. A 1998 study found the average cost to prosecute a capital case was $365,000.  That study also found the average cost to defend a capital case was about $265,000. If the cost to prosecute increased at the same rate as the cost to defend, then the average cost to prosecute a capital case in 2004 was about $855,000. 

Adding the mean costs, $252,000 to incarcerate, $855,000 to prosecute, and $620,000 to defend (because I have mean figures for each cost and lack median figures for incarceration and prosecution) the total cost to try, jail, and execute someone is about $1.7 million. These costs do not include the cost of appeals. For a federal case, this means at least one appeal to the Court of Appeals, and possibly a second to the Supreme Court. For state cases, the defendant has one definite appeal to a state appellate court (or in some cases directly to the state supreme court) and then a discretionary appeal to the state supreme court, followed by a habeas corpus petition in federal district court and at least one, possibly two appeals after that. Thus, the total cost likely ends up being double or triple the original trial cost, about $2.8 to $4.2. 

By contrast, the cost to defend a non-capital case is estimated to be significantly less, about one-eighth the cost of a capital case. To try a non-capital case is likely similarly less, as is the appeals process. Thus, the cost to incarcerate someone for life, from trial costs to incarceration costs, is substantially less than the full cost of a capital prosecution.

Regardless of whether it's morally right or wrong for the government to execute prisoners (I personally think it is), the current method, which is necessary to guarantee individuals' rights, is not cost effective. As a conservative who believes in fiscal responsibility, I therefore oppose capital punishment and urge all fiscally responsible individuals to do the same. Lets let prison justice work its magic (see Jeffery Dahmer) and put the money saved from capital prosecutions to better uses.