The Price for Death Penalty

Themes

James Wheeler 3/6/00 Government 400.3 The Costs of the Death Penalty in the United States Capital punishment has existed in the US since colonial times. Since then, more than 13,000 people have been legally executed. Today, there are only twelve states which do not have the death penalty: Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin, as well as Washington D.C. The locations of these states are important because they illustrate the lack of ideological homogeneity usually associated with geographical regions of the US. The methods of execution are as varied as their locations. The word “capital” in capital punishment refers to a person’s head, as, historically, execution was performed by cutting off the head. Today, there are generally five methods of execution used in the US. Hanging, the gas chamber, lethal injection, the electric chair and the firing squad are all used, some notably less than others. In 1930, the Bureau of Justice Statistics began keeping stats on capital punishment nationwide. From 1930 until 1967, 3859 people were executed in the US, 3334 for murder (www. uaa). That’s an average of almost 105 people per year, three out of five of which were executed in the South. By 1967, all but ten states had laws for capital punishment. Nationally, strong pressure was steadily placed on the federal government by those opposed to capital punishment which resulted in an unofficial moratorium on executions until 1976. Officially, the Supreme Court ruled capital punishment unconstitutional in 1972. In Furman v. Georgia,408 U.S. 238 (1972), a 5-4 Supreme Court decision ruled that CP laws in their present form were “arbitrary and capricious” and constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment as well as due process of the Fourteenth Amendment (www.aclu). In its decision, the Court voted that the death penalty statutes were vague and ambiguous, providing little guidance to juries in deciding whether to apply the death penalty. This caused states which still wanted the death penalty to revise their legislation to satisfy the Supreme Court’s objection to the arbitrary nature of execution. State governments tried two new strategies to be more specific and direct in death penalty trials: guided discretion and the mandatory death penalty. In Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) among others, the Supreme Court gave sentencing courts the right to impose sentences of death for specific crimes and allowed a two-stage (“bifurcated”) trial (www.cpa). In the first stage, the guilt or innocence of the defendant is established, while in the second stage, the jury or the judge (depending on the state) determines the sentence. Mandatory death penalty for specific crimes, on the other hand, was deemed unconstitutional because of cases such as Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976). These rulings lead to the modification of each state’s statutes regarding the death penalty (www.uaa). The moratorium ended and executions resumed in January 1977. Capital punishment remains, as it ahs always been, controversial and heavily debated on both philosophical (moral) grounds as well as on a strictly financial basis. Both sides, however, seem to be able to crunch the numbers and make their arguments in a way which supports their claims. Today, one of the major points of debate about the death penalty is that of cost. Some of those who support the death penalty defend it as a cost-effective alternative to life in prison. Those who oppose capital punishment conversely say that it costs a significant amount more to kill someone than to incarcerate them for life. What tends to occur is that advocates of the death penalty focus the debate on post trial costs, particularly incarceration, while opponents focus on the trial cost itself. Time Magazine (as of 12/95) found that, nationwide, the average cell cost is $24,000 per year and the average maximum-security cell cost is $75,000 per year (www.prodeathpenalty). Illustrating how statistics are made to fit the agendas, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a leading anti- death penalty organization, claims that, in Texas, a state known for its liberal use of the death penalty, it would cost three times as much to execute someone than to incarcerate them