Financial Burden of the Death Penalty

Guillotine Cash

There are several commonly asked questions when discussing the death penalty. Does capital punishment deter crimes? Is it morally just? Should it only be applied to convicted murderers? These questions and more are debated from family dinners to the United States Supreme Court. And at every level there is disagreement. However, in recent times a different question has arose, a question of economics. Is the death penalty a financially viable solution in the 21st century?

At first glance, capital punishment should be cheaper than life in prison without parole. The cost of executing a death row inmate is much lower than the cost of feeding, keeping, and guarding them for their entire life. However, recent studies in California and Oregon say that the cost of the trials for those on death row makes capital punishment a more expensive option.

(Check out http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2141502 for more on Oregon’s death penalty costs or http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/LoyolaCalifCosts.pdf for more on California’s death penalty costs)

Oregon has a ten-part appellate review process for all capital cases. This long process was developed in order to limit the probability that an innocent person would be sentenced to death, and to make sure that any person who was sentenced, truly deserved it. To date, no person has made it through all the steps. And since 1984, when Measure 6 amended the Oregon Constitution to make the death penalty legal, only two men have been executed. And both of them were volunteers who waived their full process.

Because of the length of the process, there are death row inmates in Oregon who have been going through trials for decades. One man, Randy Lee Guzak, was sentenced to death almost 27 years ago after killing a woman in cold-blood and ordering the murder of her husband. According to Mary Mooney’s article for the Oregonian, “Can Oregon afford the death penalty?” by 2009, Mr. Guzak had cost Oregon taxpayers over 2.2 million dollars in legal bills. This is in addition to the costs of housing him for the last 27 years. When you take in the fact that the average inmate costs the state of Oregon $30,000 every year, Guzak’s court costs could have been spent keeping him in jail for another 70 years.

The big picture is that Oregon is losing money every year by keeping the death penalty on the table. And the only solutions available to make it cost less involve making the process more prone to error, which could lead to the executions of innocent people. Therefore, as a purely economic issue, the death penalty does not make financial sense. And unless the moral arguments for keeping the death penalty outweigh the moral and economic arguments against the death penalty, then things need to change.

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