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States Reconsider the Death Penalty

New reports find that, while the death penalty drains hundreds of millions from state budgets, police chiefs don't consider it effective in deterring crime.
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singsing_intext.jpg

"Old Sparky," the famous electric chair formerly used at Sing Sing Prison.

Courtesy of New York State Department of Correctional Services

A report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center concludes that states are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on the death penalty, draining state budgets during the economic crisis and diverting funds from more effective anti-violence programs. It was released alongside a nationwide poll of police chiefs found that they ranked the death penalty last among their priorities for crime-fighting, do not believe the death penalty deters murder, and rate it as the least efficient use of limited taxpayer dollars.    

"With many states spending millions to retain the death penalty, while seldom or never carrying out an execution, the death penalty is turning into a very expensive form of life without parole," said Richard C. Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center and the report's author. At a time of budget shortfalls, the death penalty cannot be exempt from reevaluation alongside other wasteful government programs that no longer make sense."

According to the new poll, police chiefs on the front lines of law enforcement do not consider the death penalty an efficient use of resources. "The death penalty is a colossal waste of money that would be better spent putting more cops on the street," said Police Chief James Abbott of West Orange, New Jersey. "New Jersey threw away $250 million on the death penalty over 25 years with nothing to show for it. The death penalty isn't a deterrent whatsoever. New Jersey's murder rate has dropped since the state got rid of the death penalty. If other states abolished the death penalty, law enforcement wouldn't miss it and the cost savings could be used on more effective crime-fighting programs." Abbott, a Republican, has served 29 years on the police force and was a member of the state commission that recommended the death penalty be abolished.

Key findings from the poll of police chiefs include:

  • The death penalty was ranked last when the police chiefs were asked to name one area as "most important for reducing violent crime," with only one percent listing it as the best way to reduce violence. The death penalty came in behind more police officers; reducing drug abuse; better economy and more jobs; longer prison sentences; and technological innovations such as improved laboratories and crime databases.
  • The police chiefs ranked the death penalty as the least efficient use of taxpayers' money. They rated expanded training and more equipment for police officers; hiring more police officers; community policing; more programs to control drug and alcohol abuse; and neighborhood watch programs as more efficient uses of taxpayers' dollars.
  • Fifty seven percent of the police chiefs agreed that the death penalty does little to prevent violent crimes because perpetrators rarely consider the consequences when engaged in violence. Although the police chiefs did not oppose the death penalty in principle, less than half (47%) would support it if a sentence of life without parole with mandatory restitution to the victim's family were available.
Death penalty map

A global map showing use of the death penalty.
Blue: Abolished for all crimes
Green
: Abolished for crimes not committed in wartime
Orange
: Abolished in practice
Red
: Legal form of punishment for certain offenses

Due to higher security and litigation costs, the death penalty is more expensive than life sentences. Around the country, death sentences have declined 60% since 2000 and executions have declined almost as much. Yet maintaining a system with 3,300 people on death row and supporting new prosecutions for death sentences that likely will never be carried out is becoming increasingly expensive and harder to justify.

After finding that its bill for five executions over a twenty-year period will be $186 million, Maryland decided this year to narrow its application of the death penalty. New York and New Jersey spent well over $100 million on a system that produced no executions. Both recently abandoned the practice.

Despite having no executions during the last four years, California spends $137 million per year on the death penalty—even as the state pays its employees in IOUs and releases inmates early to address overcrowding and budget shortfalls. In Florida, where the courts have lost 10 percent of their funding, the state spends $24 million for each execution.

In 2009, New Mexico abolished the death penalty and 11 state legislatures (Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington) considered bills to do the same.

Both houses of the Connecticut legislature voted to end the death penalty and one house of the Montana and Colorado legislatures (where cost savings were to be allocated to solving cold cases) passed abolition bills. The trend of states reexamining the death penalty in light of the economic crisis is expected to continue.


Richard DieterRichard Dieter is executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment.

The poll of 500 randomly-selected police chiefs was conducted from October 29 to November 14, 2008 by RT Strategies with a margin of error of +/- 5.1 for all elites. The results of the poll were publicly released for the first time today. You can download the full report as a PDF.

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