October 21, 2014

October 21, 2014 | Commentary on Legal Issues, Crime, Rule of Law

Studies Confirm: Death Penalties Deter Many Murders at Far Less Cost

On September 17, Texas executed Lisa Coleman for murdering a 9-year-old child. Death penalty opponents argue that, even in the most heinous cases, executions are just too costly, and that society would do better to substitute life-without-parole sentences for lethal injections.

Before examining the death penalty’s costs and benefits, though, let’s consider why Coleman landed on death row.

Devontae Williams was the son of Coleman’s girlfriend.When found by paramedics, his emaciated corpse weighed only 36 pounds – approximately half the normal weight of a child his age. His body had stopped growing long before he starved to death.

Further examination revealed that Devontae had suffered more than 250 distinct injuries, including cigarette burns and scars from the ligatures that had bound him.

Prosecutor Dixie Bersano noted, “There was not an inch of his body that had not been bruised or scarred or injured.” The medical examiner ruled his death was due to malnutrition, with pneumonia as a contributing factor.

Some crimes are so inherently evil they demand strict penalties – up to and including death. Most Americans recognize this principle as just.

Gallup polls show continuing broad public support for the death penalty. While foes of capital punishment have failed to change public opinion, they have succeeded in increasing the time it takes to carry out a death sentence.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that the average length of time from sentencing to actual execution increased from 74 months in 1984 to 190 months – nearly 16 years – in 2012.

Such excessive delays fuel increased costs, which death penalty opponents then publicly lament without any apparent sense of irony.

It’s hard to estimate death penalty costs. They vary according to state requirements and procedures.

That said, an Urban Institute study of Maryland cases resulting in a death sentence estimated that each cost taxpayers an average of $3 million in lifetime costs – $1.9 million more than no-death-notice cases.

That’s a big cost differential. But does the punishment have any benefits?

In 2008, Drexel University economist Bijou Yang and psychologist David Lester of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey conducted a comprehensive review of capital punishment research.

They concluded that, since 1975, the majority of studies tracking effects over many years and across states or counties found a deterrent effect.

One particularly good study, based on data from all 50 states from 1978 to 1997 by Federal Communications Commission economist Paul Zimmerman, demonstrated that each state execution deters an average of 14 murders annually.

Placing a monetary value on a life is a sensitive matter, but consider this. Syracuse University Professor Thomas J. Kniesner and his colleagues estimate that, to reduce workplace fatalities, the public is willing to pay from $4 million to $10 million in regulatory costs for each life spared.

Based solely on monetary terms and using Professor Kniesner’s lower-bound estimate of $4 million, the lifetime cost of a capital-eligible case that results in a death sentence would need to exceed $56 million for it to outweigh the public’s willingness to avoid being murdered.

Yes, the death penalty costs money, just like any other criminal justice sanction. But these are expenses that protect innocents, hold society’s most vicious criminals accountable, and are legitimate functions of federal and state governments.

Throughout the long, torturous murder of Devontae Williams, Lisa Coleman had multiple opportunities to show mercy on her victim. She had none.

Moral indignation is an appropriate response to inherently wrongful conduct, such as that carried out by Coleman. But in determining the proportionality of punishment, it is right for lawmakers to place special emphasis on the moral gravity of offenses.

The cost of death penalty cases is certainly not trivial. But the deterrent effect yields a most valuable benefit. The death penalty saves lives.

 - David B. Muhlhausen is a research fellow in empirical policy analysis at The Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D. Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis
Center for Data Analysis

Related Issues: Legal Issues, Crime, Rule of Law

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