Many people believe that the death penalty is more cost-effective than housing and feeding someone in prison for life. In reality, the death penalty’s complexity, length and finality drive costs through the roof, making it much more expensive.
Why does the death penalty cost so much?
“Death is different.” Today’s choice is between an expensive death penalty system and one that risks falling below constitutional standards. Every stage of a capital case is more time-consuming and expensive than in a noncapital case. If the defendant is found guilty of a capital crime, an additional trial is required, with new witnesses and new evidence, in which the jury must decide whether the penalty should be death or less than death, like life without parole (LWOP).
Capital punishment is an inefficient, bloated program that bogs down law enforcement, delays justice for victims’ families, and devours millions from crime-fighting resources that could save lives and protect the public.
A 2008 poll by Death Penalty Information Center surveyed 500 U.S. police chiefs and found:
- When asked to name one area as “most important for reducing violent crime,” greater use of the death penalty ranked last among police chiefs, with only 1 percent listing it as the best way to reduce violence.
- The death penalty was considered the least efficient use of taxpayers’ money. They ranked expanded training for police officers, community policing, programs to control drug and alcohol abuse, and neighborhood watch programs as more cost-effective ways to use taxpayers’ money.
- Fifty-seven percent of police chiefs surveyed said the death penalty does little to prevent violent crimes because perpetrators rarely consider the consequences when engaged in violence.
- Although police chiefs did not oppose the death penalty in principle, fewer than half (47%) supported it compared to a sentence of life imprisonment without parole combined with mandatory restitution by the defendant to the victim or the victim’s family.
Since 1973, at least 150 people have been freed from death rows across the country after evidence of innocence revealed that they had been wrongfully convicted. That’s almost one person exonerated for every 10 who have been executed. In Tennessee alone, three people have been exonerated in that same time. Wrongful convictions rob innocent people of decades of their lives, waste tax dollars and re-traumatize the victims’ families, while the criminals responsible remain unaccountable.
The death penalty is irreversible. The process is longer because a life is on the line. Many of the extra procedures are legally required to reduce the risk of mistakes. And even these are not enough – at least 150 people have been exonerated from death row after waiting years or decades for the truth to come out. Streamlining the process would virtually guarantee the execution of an innocent person.
To be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure. The death penalty is neither. It prolongs pain for victims’ families, dragging them through an agonizing and lengthy process that promises an execution at the beginning but often results in a different sentence in the end. The death penalty showers resources and attention on a few cherry-picked cases, telling families that some lives are more important than others.
Just 1 percent of murders in the United States have resulted in a death sentence over the last decade. But are those individuals truly the “worst of the worst” – or simply those with inadequate legal representation? Around 85 percent of those on death row in Tennessee were financially unable to hire attorneys to represent them at trial.
The uneven playing field that characterizes the U.S. death penalty compromises the integrity of the entire criminal justice system.
In Tennessee, 40 percent of death sentences come from Shelby County alone, while half the counties in Tennessee have never sent anyone to death row.