The Financial Crisis and the Death Penalty

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According to a news article available here, several states are considering eliminating the death penalty as a way to save money.  The issue has sparked some interest in the blogosphere, including here and here.  In light of the ever-increasing budget shortfall in North Carolina, which will apparently exceed two billion dollars and require cuts of 9% or more to state agencies, is the issue likely to arise here?

Two things make me think not.  First, the states that are considering eliminating the death penalty are mostly states that don’t have a significant number of people on death row.  States like California, Texas, and Florida aren’t considering eliminating the death penalty, which makes me suspect that North Carolina, which currently has the nation’s seventh-largest death row, won’t consider it either.  Second, I doubt that the financial savings are substantial enough to lure the General Assembly into the political minefield of the death penalty.  The Los Angeles Times, in an editorial here, claims that California could save about $60 million per year by eliminating the death penalty.  California’s death row is more than three times as large as North Carolina’s, suggesting much lesser potential savings here — and the editorial’s calculations don’t appear to include the potential increase in costs that would result  from an increase in first-degree murder trials if the death penalty were eliminated as an incentive to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.  (The study cited by the editorial does try to account for those costs, and it may be worth a look.  It’s available here.)

The bottom line?  The economic impact of the death penalty may be an important piece of the puzzle, and may deserve further study.  But I doubt that economic concerns alone will drive any changes to North Carolina’s capital punishment regime, given the strong feelings on both sides of the death penalty debate.

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2 comments on “The Financial Crisis and the Death Penalty

  1. Doug Berman has a new post dealing with this issue that addresses the financial concern you allude to — that the number of murder trials would rise drastically if the death penalty were eliminated, and that the costs would rise as well:

    http://sentencing.typepad.com/sentencing_law_and_policy/2009/02/great-new-though-still-dated-examination-of-the-death-penalty-and-plea-bargaining.html

    [don’t know if the comments take hyperlinks, no preview available, so let’s see what happens]

    Professor Berman’s blog post references a report by Kent Scheidegger from the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation that examines the potential consequences of eliminating the death penalty:

    http://www.cjlf.org/papers/wpaper09-01.pdf

    Having said all that, I think that the issue will receive considerable attention in NC, but ultimately I agree with you that the death penalty will not be eliminated based on a financial cost-benefit analysis. Nor should it, in my opinion — capital punishment has never really been about dollars and cents. It’s about justice, and our collective judgment about what justice requires as a possible punishment for the worst crimes committed in our society.

  2. […] yet.  I’ve blogged previously about the financial crisis and the death penalty — here — but the impact of the financial crisis on expert witnesses is a new angle, one with […]

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