Social Justice Matters: The High Price of Vengeance

The United States is one of the last nations in the world to continue using the death penalty. I am strongly opposed to the death penalty, for a whole variety of reasons, and I could write a post about wrongful convictions, about the inhumanity of death row, about conditions in US prisons, about whether we should be killing people to avenge horrible crimes or not, but today, I’d like to focus purely on economics. Because, economically, the death penalty does not make sense.

And I am a big fan of winning people over with economic arguments, because economics cuts to the chase. It gets to the heart of the matter. There’s room for debate about where we get the numbers from, but when you get right down to it and talk about the best way to do things as a society, I think there’s something to be said for efficiency, and economic efficiency in particular. I think, in other words, that there are better things to be spending our money on.

You may not care about human beings; you may think that prison reform is not an issue relevant to your interests. You may personally think that prisoners should all rot in dark pits somewhere, especially if they have committed crimes you deem particularly reprehensible. You may think that this series of posts is, as one person helpfully told me in an email, ‘a pathetic pile of liberal handwringing over CRIMINALS!’ But you ought to care about money. You ought to think there are better uses for our money, whether you think that people in the US should be paying less in taxes, or you think that we need more social programmes, or whatever. The death penalty is really expensive, far more expensive than imprisoning people for life, and that means it’s time to talk economics.

Here in California, death row inmates cost an estimated $90,000 USD more, per year, to imprison than other inmates (source). Approximately $63 million dollars is spent annually on the extra costs associated with death row prisoners here in the Golden State. These numbers are similar in other US states.

There are a number of reasons for these costs. One is the need for increased security and special procedures for people held on death row, adding to the costs of prisoner maintenance by creating more layers of bureaucracy. Prisoners in the general population are not as expensive to house, feed, and monitor, although as I have discussed elsewhere, we should be spending more money on those prisoners to provide basic health and safety services; right now people are dying, experiencing rape and sexual assault, and being physically abused on my dime, and yours, if you’re a taxpayer in the US.

In addition, people on death row are entitled to file motions, go through appeals, and take advantage of other opportunities to interact with the legal system. This is a legal right. It is not a right I am interested in abolishing, but it does cost a great deal of money. Supposedly, all of these stopgaps are in place to prevent the execution of innocent people, so I’d ask why it is that we continue to execute innocent people, but that’s a topic for another post. The important takeaway here is that the legal rights people are entitled to with a death penalty conviction cost money, and lots of it.

For those who think that abolishing the appeals process and limiting access to the legal system after conviction, as is done in Japan, is the solution to the high cost of the death penalty, well, I have disappointing news for you. According to Amnesty International, trials where the death penalty is sought are more expensive to run than non-death penalty cases. That means that even before a conviction takes place, the death penalty is already more expensive than seeking life in prison without parole; an individual trial can cost more than $10 million.

A Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice report issued in 2008 for California estimated that we spend $137 million every year on our current prison system. The Commission made a number of recommendations for improving the justice system in California while leaving the death penalty intact as an option. Cost? $232 million. We would have to spend over $100 million more every year just to make the current justice system in California fair. Narrowing eligibility for the death penalty and enacting reforms, on the other hand, would drop administration costs to $130 million per year.

What about the costs for maintaining a prison system in California if we abolished the death penalty? $11 million per year. That is a significant difference and represents substantial potential savings.

The current population of California is, rounded up, around 34 million people. Let’s say we went from spending $137 million to $11 million on prisons in California. That would be a savings of $126 million. Enough to send everyone in California almost $4 USD. Ok, not very impressive. But sinking that money into something else, like roads, or schools, or public safety, could make a significant difference. We could plow that money right back into the justice system and aim it at prevention programs, rehabilitation, victim advocacy, and other projects, thereby potentially saving ourselves even more money in the long term by reducing crime, cutting down on the number of trials needed, and limiting the prison population.

The death penalty is expensive. It is inarguably, obviously, demonstrably, clearly, expensive. It’s notable that within the framework of the current broken system, it’s already expensive, and pretty much all proposals for making the death penalty and the justice system in general more fair add up to increased expenses. Do we really want to plow $100 million more every year into making our prison system better, while still executing people? Or would we rather just skip that by abolishing the death penalty and generating substantial cost savings?

How high is too high a price to pay for vengeance? People can talk about this theoretically, from the perspective of policymaking and ethics and whether we should be executing people at all, but I personally want my $4 back.