Death penalty debates, whether in scholarly literature or over the dinner table, are usually divisive, pitting one group, who believes that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, against another group, who believes in taking an eye for an eye. These debates typically revolve around themes of morality and ethics, with economics usually taking a back seat. In a recent article over at the WSJ Law Blog, however, Ashby Jones discusses how, in these difficult economic times, the costs of the death penalty are beginning to take center stage in the death penalty debate.
The article cites California as an example, where the costs of death row has lawmakers considering whether the enormous expense of maintaining the death penalty is justifiable when the state is in economic crisis. According to the article, The California penal system costs the state $137M per year, which would drop to $11M per year if the death penalty was abolished. In July of 2009, the California state prison system housed 170,000 inmates, only 648 of whom where on death row. If you take the amount it currently costs to run the California penal system ($137M) and subtract what it would cost without a death row ($11M), you would reach $126M, which would be the cost of death row. $126M/$170M would give you the percentage of the budget dedicated to death row, which is 74%. Now, if you take the number of death row inmates (648) and divide them by the total number of inmates (170,000), you will arrive at .0038%. This means that 74% of California's prison budget goes to pay for only .0038% of prisoners. This works out to $194,444 per death row inmate, per year.
The WSJ article was posted on Dec. 8th, just nine days after the Illinois House Judiciary Committee voted 4-3 for SB3539, which would abolish capital punishment in Illinois. The WSJ article cites Illinois as having spent $100M on death row since 2000, when Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. If Illinois spent $100M on death row inmates in the last ten years, that means that it spends, on average, roughly $10M per year on death row inmates. As of November 2010, there were fifteen inmates on death row in Illinois. If Illinois, as it has in the past, spent an average of $10M per year on death row inmates, it would have cost $10M to house 15 inmates this year, which works out to $666,666 per inmate, which is $472,222 more per inmate than California spends on its death row inmates.
Morality considerations aside, the economic argument against the death penalty is impossible to ignore. Even as taxes in the state continue to rise, Illinois, like California is struggling to pay its bills. The last time that death penalty abolishment legislation passed the House Judiciary Committee was in 2003, when HB213 passed by a vote of 8-4 but ultimately died in the House. SB3539, however, might succeed where HB213 failed. Not necessarily because the political climate surrounding the death penalty has changed, but because Illinois' budgetary system has significantly changed for the worse from 2003 to 2010. Illinois could very well follow cash-strapped California's lead by taking a hard look at the economic costs of maintaining the death penalty, especially when nobody has been executed in Illinois for the past ten years. Even though it is irresponsible to spend $194,444 per inmate per year, it is downright absurd to spend over triple that per year to incarcerate a death row inmate for one year in Illinois. In this challenging economic climate, it might be this very compelling economic argument that pushes death penalty supporters aside and pushes SB3539 through the legislature and into law.