Texas recently executed Robert Purett, a 38-year-old man who was serving life in prison when he murdered a guard. Texas punishes murders committed in prison with the death penalty. Pruett served a life sentence in prison because he witnessed his father commit murder. The penalty for witnessing a murder in Texas is life in prison. With this execution, Pruett became the fifth person Texas executed in 2017.

31 states, the United States government, and the U.S. military all allow crimes to be punished with the death penalty. Not all crimes, of course. Most states reserve the death penalty for crimes like murder, or murder with “aggravating circumstances,” which means things like prior crimes, lack of remorse, and more. For example, in California, you can receive the death penalty for “train-wrecks causing death” which feels… specific.

There is also the federal death penalty, which can be given out for crimes like espionage, the murder of a federal prisoner, or genocide. I don’t believe anyone in the United States has received the death penalty for genocide, but I guess it’s good to have the option?

map of the united states of america shows states where death penalty is legal or illegal

On a side note, any murder becomes a federal murder when it is committed on a Native American reservation, which means that Native Americans are still eligible for the death penalty if they murder someone even if their reservation is in a state that does not have the death penalty. This is one of the many ways our justice system clearly discriminates against Native Americans, an article for another time.

The death penalty can be tough to argue, morally. Some people (myself included) believe execution is a cruel and unusual punishment, and that giving the state the ability to decide who lives and who dies is an overreach of government power. Others point to some of the most heinous crimes in America and ask why we shouldn’t punish them with death.

There may not be a clear moral answer on the death penalty, but there is a clear economic answer. Let’s look at the costs of life in prison versus the death penalty.

The Cost of Prison

The cost to house an inmate in prison for a year varies wildly. On average, the federal government pays $28,284 per year to house a single inmate in federal prison. State prisons can sometimes house inmates for less money, with Kentucky paying only $14,603 a year. States can also pay way more, with each New York prisoner costing the state $167,731 a year.

Even with these costs, inmates often have substandard facilities in prison. People across the nation report being denied medications for life-threatening illnesses, abuse by guards, and overcrowding, to name only a few issues. For all the government spends housing inmates, people in prison are not treated with even basic human decency.

And if you can believe it, this is the cheaper option.

Tax Reform is Taxing

The Cost of the Death Penalty

The death penalty is exceedingly more expensive than any prison. On the whole, the median cost of a capital punishment case is eight times higher than cases of the same crime where prosecutors don’t seek the death penalty. In Maryland, a capital punishment case costs $3 million a year, for a single inmate. A study from Duke University found that repealing the death penalty in North Carolina would save the state $11 million dollars a year. And that’s factoring in the cost of life in prison without parole.

These are minimal savings compared to what California would save if they got rid of the death penalty. In the past 30 years, California has executed 13 people. The state keeps 714 people on death row, and the average length of a death penalty trial is 25 years. For each inmate on death row, the cost of the trial and execution was $308 million.

If that’s not the most expensive 8th amendment violation in the country, I don’t know what is.

Death Penalty Murder

Forget the Money! I Want to Kill!

Of course, the cost may not be the best argument. We’re talking about human life here! But the death penalty doesn’t act as a deterrent to crime. New York is a great example for this. Governor George Pataki (you may remember him from such forgotten presidential runs as the 2016 election) reinstated the death penalty in 1995. The court of appeals removed the death penalty again in 2004. Before Pataki reinstated the death penalty, violent crime was on the decline. When the death penalty came back, violent crime was…still on the decline. Currently, New York has no death penalty and violent crime is, you guessed it, on the decline.

Several studies conducted in the United States and around the world have failed to find any deterrent effect from the death penalty. So it costs more money than any other criminal justice measure, and it doesn’t work. Seems like there’s no good reason to keep it.

“But Bella,” you say. “What about the families of murder victims? Surely they want justice for their loved ones!”

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You’re in for a surprise, hypothetical reader. There certainly are family members who support capital punishment, but there are actually many that oppose it. It absolutely may give some people peace to know the killer of their loved one is murdered for their crimes, but some feel that “more pain and more killing does not alleviate sorrow.”

As I said before, it’s tough to argue the morality of capital punishment. For all the good points I make about forgiveness and state overreach, another person has points about alleviating family pain, and sending a message that there are certain crimes we don’t tolerate. And I’m not here to argue morality. I’m here to say that the death penalty doesn’t make financial sense and it is not an effective punishment. Maybe one day, that will be enough to convince our country to join the vast majority of countries that do not use this human rights violation of a punishment.

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