Death penalty is unfair, costly and an ineffective deterrent

The following op-ed by our policy analyst, Josh Daniels, was published today in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Earlier this year, the state of Utah was widely mocked for considering the re-authorization of firing squads as a form of capital punishment. Unfortunately, the debate never addressed the acceptability of the death penalty itself, despite lengthy consideration by the Legislature of a comprehensive package of criminal justice reforms during the same time. This missed opportunity can be corrected next year; Utah should abandon the use of capital punishment in favor of life without parole.

The Utah Legislature often looks for ways it can squeeze more value from each tax dollar by reforming government programs. This drive for tax efficiency was a primary impetus behind this year’s criminal justice reforms. With the death penalty, however, taxpayers get a lot less bang for the buck. While a desire for justice has led legislators in the past to favor this policy of ultimate retribution, capital punishment has become a failure of big government and falls far short as an effective policy.

Death penalty cases are much more costly than life without parole, as they trigger a more robust and lengthier legal process at trial with a series of required appeals. In Utah, a 2012 legislative study found that the increased trial costs of administering the death penalty made the punishment $1.6 million more expensive to the taxpayer than the alternative — a conservative estimate, since the study did not take into account the increased cost of cases where the death penalty was sought but not ultimately imposed.

Utah’s numbers are not an anomaly; other states have also found the death penalty to be costly. In California, for example, capital punishment is as much as 20 times more expensive than the alternative of life without parole, with nearby Idaho finding it to be 70 percent more expensive. Given recent public concern over the police use of force, investments in training and body camera technology could be far more helpful to public safety than the protracted judicial process of a few death penalty cases.

While taxpayers bear a significant financial cost in capital punishment cases, we must not forget the emotional costs borne by the victims. The lengthy appeals in death penalty cases generate waves of media attention, prolonging the victims’ desire for swift and sure justice. The wounds of murder for the family members of victims are reopened with each sensational death penalty story about their perpetrator.

The death penalty is also not a just penalty when it is not fairly or consistently sought in every murder case. Moreover, the risk of executing an innocent person undermines the moral authority of the entire system. Efforts led primarily by the Innocence Project have led to the exoneration of at least eight inmates in Utah who were previously given life sentences, and hundreds of inmates around the country have been released from death row upon the discovery of new evidence. Prosecutorial misconduct, faulty forensic evidence, mistaken eyewitness testimony, and coerced confessions have driven many wrongful convictions across the country. The very real risk of executing an innocent person is enough to abandon capital punishment altogether.

The death penalty also falls short as a deterrent. Murder rates in death penalty states are actually consistently higher than in states without the death penalty. After repealing capital punishment, both New York and New Jersey saw their murder rates decline. A National Research Council study found that there was no credible evidence to support the deterrent effect of capital punishment. Moreover, experts in the field do not believe it works either. Eighty-eight percent of criminologists nationwide do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent, and police chiefs nationwide rate the death penalty as one of the most inefficient uses of taxpayer dollars. In fact, the death penalty is actually worse for public safety as its judicial administration diverts scarce public safety dollars away from other important needs.

While the death penalty might appeal to our emotional appetite for retribution and justice, the reality is that it is not a justly administered penalty for the accused, the risk of executing an innocent is too high, and it does not serve victims very well. Given the low value and high cost of the death penalty, capital punishment in Utah does not give taxpayers much bang for the buck. We encourage legislators in Utah to continue their criminal justice reform effort and repeal this failed big government program.