The bittersweet reality is that money, rather than morality, has become the tipping point for abolishing it.
This year, state budgetary crises have given death penalty opponents their most successful argument yet – money.
Just two states have abolished the death penalty in the past 40 years, New Jersey in 2007 and New Mexico in March. The cost of capital punishment played a key role in both decisions, and is driving current legislative attempts to repeal the death penalty in a number of other states.
The bittersweet reality is that money, rather than morality, has become the tipping point for saving lives. Why?
Administering the death penalty is breathtakingly expensive. Contrary to popular opinion, it costs substantially more to execute people than to send them to prison for the rest of their lives.
In California, which houses the nation's largest death row, it costs about $137 million annually to maintain the state's death penalty system. The state has conducted only 11 executions since reinstating the death penalty in 1978, bringing the average cost per execution to $250 million. That's right – a quarter of a dollars per execution.
California's estimated cost of administering a system without capital punishment (imposing instead a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole) is $11 million annually, which means the state could save $126 million per year if it rescinded a penalty that it almost never uses. That's big money – money that could be allocated to healthcare and to education, money that could put more police officers on the streets and take more killers off them.
California's costs are on the high side nationally, but the phenomenon is not unique. Maryland recently estimated that the death penalty has cost the state $186 million since it was reinstated in 1978 – an average of $37.2 million for each of the state's five executions during that same period.
Two years ago, New Jersey calculated that the death penalty had cost over $250 million since its reinstatement in 1983 – and for all the money invested, the state had not a single execution to show for it. Little wonder New Jersey decided to cut its losses and close death row.
And why is the death penalty so expensive?
When the stakes are life and death, everything costs more.