Open Mic: The Cost of the Death Penalty

By David Dozier

A study in California revealed that the cost of capital punishment in the state has been over $4 billion since it was reinstated in 1978. Since California has executed 13 prisoners during that time, the cost per execution is more than $307 million. Other financial facts about the death penalty show capital cases in some states costing millions more than life imprisonment. 

So, more people are asking: Is it worth it? 

Cost is one factor people sometimes don’t consider in that debate. The complexity of seeking it and carrying out an execution is a long and expensive process. Many capital cases are appealed, and incarceration on death row can span 10, 15 or 20 or more years. And with capital punishment costs imposing a burden on state government budgets that are already stretched, it’s more cost-effective to commute death penalties to life imprisonment without parole. 

But cost is just one reason that President Joe Biden should work toward ending the death penalty in the U.S. As part of his criminal justice reform platform, he has pledged to abolish the federal death penalty and to give incentives to states to stop seeking death sentences. (Currently, capital punishment is authorized in 28 states.) Another reason to end the death penalty is its ties to racism. The Biden-Harris administration plans to address racism on many fronts. 

Awareness of the killings of unarmed Black people by police has heightened the sensitivity of White Americans to racial injustice and prompted protests. The death penalty is targeted at persons of color: Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population – but 34% of persons executed since 1976. 

Too often, the death penalty is a poor man’s punishment. District attorneys are more likely to go after poor defendants who are trying to fight for their lives with overworked and underpaid public defenders. DA’s sometimes put dirty cops above the law by refusing to prosecute police who kill unarmed persons of color. That’s because police unions and prison guard unions pump lots of money into DA political campaigns. But if a Black man kills a policeman, police and police unions will push DA’s to seek the death penalty. 

A third reason the death penalty should be eliminated both in the U.S. and around the world is because it is cruel – a barbaric and sadistic violation of human rights. It is pure hypocrisy for a nation such as ours to view itself as a beacon for human rights while ranking seventh in the world for the number of executions we administer. Executions are a form of torture that violate the Eighth Amendment prohibiting the federal government from imposing cruel and unusual punishment. 

The U.S. government under President Donald Trump in 2020 carried out the most federal executions ever in a single year. But under Biden, the pendulum should swing; the question is how much on a state level. Meantime, it’s good to see public opinion shifting toward the elimination of the death penalty. Using an unbiased question, a 2019 Gallup poll on capital punishment showed 60% of Americans favored life in prison for murder while only 36% preferred the death penalty. 

Public support for the death penalty has dipped near a 48-year low, and at the same time there is a bipartisan movement in state legislatures and Congress to end it. Many politicians and ordinary Americans are bothered by executions of innocent people. For every nine prisoners executed, an innocent death row inmate is exonerated. DNA science and advances in law enforcement have cleared numerous death row inmates. 

Numerous Democratic lawmakers have already written to President Biden about their objections to the death penalty, asking him to sign an executive order to eliminate federal executions and calling capital punishment unjust, racist and defective. And conservatives in several states have pushed back against the death penalty, saying it is too costly, inconsistent with conservatives’ opposition to abortion, subject to error, and not an effective deterrent. 

The momentum of states toward abolishing the death penalty, and the strengthening  bipartisan footing against it on state and federal levels, make Biden’s goal of ending capital punishment a stronger possibility. You can measure the cost of the death penalty in many ways – in terms of public policy and sheer, enormous dollars; in morality; and in racism. But any way you slice it, it comes out as wrong. The Biden Administration has a great opportunity to get it right. 

David Dozier is the author of “The California Killing Field.” To have your topical essay considered for publication, write to us at [email protected]

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