Death Penalty Cost Sways Debate

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Oct 8, 2012

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The Death Penalty has always been one of the most controversial issues in American criminal law, with citizens divided over the merits and moral implications of putting criminal offenders to death.  For years, debates have raged from cocktail parties to the halls of congress about whether or not it is ethical or effective to use the threat of death to deter criminal behavior.  While people on opposite sides of the issue may never agree on the purpose and morality of the death penalty, one issue seems to be bridging the gap in competing view points: cost.

Staunch supporters of the tough on crime attitude that gives the death penalty its justification have begun to switch their political position, and have spoken out against the continued use of death as a punishment.  A 2011 study co-authored by Arthur Alarcon, a federal appellate judge in LA, found that California had spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment since 1978 – about $308 million per executed inmate. 

This staggering cost has been the driving factor of a recent referendum in California that calls for the death penalty to be replaced with a sentence of life without parole.  The referendum will be voted on in the upcoming November election, and is gaining support on both sides of the political spectrum due to budget concerns the state is facing. 

While not all death penalty opponents agree that the punishment should be abolished rather than re-worked, support for the punishment is at 61% – a 39 year low according to the most recent Gallup poll.  Even “red” states such as Montana and Utah have seen proposed legislation looking to curb or eliminate the use of the death penalty because of the cost.  This does not mean states everywhere will willingly adopt the change, but it does indicate that historically conservative voters and politicians who have supported the death penalty are becoming open to changing their position.

Sentencing a person to death for their crimes is a serious and controversial punishment, and it always will be.  However, as the nation collectively tightens its belt and looks for ways to save money, people who philosophically disagree have come together.  Since 2007 five states have abolished the death penalty: Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York.   As the cost of the death penalty becomes an increasingly central talking point on the issue, expect more states to ban the controversial punishment in favor of cheaper alternatives.

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