Edwards: The price of death

The idea of capital punishment came with European settlers as they began to settle in the new world. The first recorded execution in the new colonies was that of Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. The death penalty has gone through various changes over the years, such as moving away from hangings and burning at the stake and moving toward more humane ways of ending life, such as lethal injections. More than half of the countries in the international community have abolished the death penalty completely; 58 countries still have the death penalty. Capital punishment is usually reserved for the following types of cases: first degree murder, treason, and aggravated murder. Thirty-one states in the U.S. have the death penalty and in those states, there are 2,943 inmates who are on death row as of January 1, 2016.

The death penalty, it is often said, helps deter crime, and brings about justice for the victims. It is assumed that criminals will think twice before they commit a crime if the punishment could include death. It can provide closure for many families and in some cases the victims, but many families are horrified when they witness the inmate being executed and they are left with an empty feeling, not the feeling of justice that many think they will receive.

The death penalty is often put in a good light as it is supposedly cheaper and more humane then a life sentence, but is it really? The average inmate spends 178 months on death row between sentencing, multiple trials, and execution. A quarter of the deaths of inmates in the Unites States who are on death row are caused by natural causes. Cases without the death penalty cost an average of $740,000, while cases where the death penalty is sought cost anywhere from $1 million to $1.6 million, depending on the state. Maintaining each death row prisoner costs taxpayers $90,000 more per year than a prisoner in general population.

There are alternatives to capital punishment that not only cost less but also keep dangerous criminals off the street for their lives. On average, taxpayers pay execution costs that are twice as much as keeping an inmate in prison for life. Dr. Gross, a Creighton University economics professor, estimated that the death penalty costs states with capital punishment an average of $23.2 million more per year than alternative sentences. Life in prison guarantees that the individual will not be released back on the streets to commit more crime. It also does not require so many trials, so it is less expensive than the death penalty.

Support for the death penalty is shrinking. In 1936, 61% of Americans favored the death penalty and thirty years later the support had shrunk to 42%. Throughout the 70s and 80s, the percentage of Americans in favor of the death penalty increased steadily, culminating in an 80% approval rating in 1994. As of 2015, 61% of Americans continue to support capital punishment, even though it is outlawed in 19 states. I believe that support is shrinking because cases that include capital punishment are often on the news and pressure can be put forth to close the case quickly and while cases may be taken out of the news, capital punishment cases are never closed quickly. Most Americans do not consider that we are a nation that carries out “an eye for an eye,” and when other countries use the policy, we see it as barbaric. An example would be when someone gets his hand cut off for stealing, we do not do this in America but when we hear that other countries do, and we are horrified.

While the death penalty sounds like a good thing at first, once you dig deeper into it, then it begins to look ugly. It not only costs tax payers thousands more each year, but it also does not deter crime nor give families the feeling that justice has been done. Is death really the best option?


Rebecka Edwards is a University of Central Arkansas student of regular columnist Joe McGarrity, a professor of microeconomics at the university. This submitted column has been reviewed and revised by McGarrity. These submitted pieces add an economic viewpoint to the issues of our day. Send comments and responses to joem@uca.edu.


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