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Argument: Executions are no more costly than life in prison

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There's a claim that it is more expensive for the state to execute a criminal than to incarcerate him for life. Many opponents present, as fact, that the cost of the death penalty is so expensive (at least $2 million per case?), that we must choose life without parole ("LWOP") at a cost of $1 million for 50 years. Predictably, these pronouncements may be entirely false. JFA (Justice for All) estimates that LWOP cases will cost $1.2 million - $3.6 million more than equivalent death penalty cases.

And life without parole prisoners face, on average, 30 or 40 years in prison while the annual cost of incarceration is $40,000 to $50,000 a year for each prisoner or more! There is no question that the up front costs of the death penalty are significantly higher than for equivalent LWOP cases. There also appears to be no question that, over time, equivalent LWOP cases are much more expensive - from $1.2 to $3.6 million - than death penalty cases. Opponents ludicrously claim that the death penalty costs, over time, 3-10 times more than LWOP.

The $34,200 is conservative, if TIME Magazine's (2/7/94) research is accurate. TIME found that, nationwide, the average cell cost is $24,000/yr. and the maximum security cell cost is $75,000/yr. (as of12/95). Opponents claim that LWOP should replace the DP. Therefore, any cost calculations should be based specifically on cell costs for criminals who have committed the exact same category of offense - in other words, cost comparisons are valid only if you compare the costs of DP-equivalent LWOP cases to the cost of DP cases. The $34,200/yr. cell cost assumes that only 20% of the DP-equivalent LWOP cases would be in maximum security cost cells and that 80% of the DP-equivalent LWOP cases would be in average cost cells. A very conservative estimate. The $60,000/yr., for those on death row, assumes that such cells will average a cost equal to 80% of the $75,000/yr. for the most expensive maximum security cells. A very high estimate. Even though we are calculating a 75% greater cell cost for the DP than for equivalent LWOP cases, equivalent LWOP cases appear to be significantly more expensive, over time, than their DP counterparts. For years, opponents have improperly compared the cost of all LWOP cases to DP cases, when only the DP equivalent LWOP cases are relevant.

Annual cost increases are based upon: 1) historical increases in prison costs, including judicial decisions regarding prison conditions,and the national inflation rate; 2) medical costs, including the immense cost of geriatric care, associated with real LWOP sentences; 3) injury or death to the inmate by violence; 4) injury or death to others caused by the inmate (3 and 4 anticipate no DP and that prisoners, not fearing additional punishment, other than loss of privileges, may increase the likelihood of violence. One could make the same assumptions regarding those on death row. The difference is that death row inmates will average 6 years incarceration vs. 50 years projected for LWOP); 5) the risk and the perceived risk of escape; and 6) the justifiable lack of confidence by the populace in our legislators, governors, parole boards and judges, i.e. a violent inmate will be released upon society.

$75,000 for trial and appeals cost, for DP-equivalent LWOP cases, assumes that the DP is not an option. It is believed that this cost estimate is very low. It is over-estimated that DP cases will cost twenty times more, on average, or $1.5 million. This exaggerated estimate states that the DP will have twenty times more investigation cost, defense and prosecution cost, including court time, guilt/innocence stage, sentencing stage and appellate review time and cost than DP equivalent LWOP cases. Even though abolitionists have greatly exaggerated the cost of DP cases, DP cases still prove to be significantly less expensive, over time, than the DP equivalent LWOP cases.

6 years on death row, prior to execution, reflects the new habeas corpus reform laws, at both the state and federal levels. Some anti-death penalty groups speculate that such time may actually become only 4 years. If so, then DP cases would cost even that much less than the DP equivalent LWOP cases. However, the average time on death row, for those executed from 1973-1994, was 8 years. Therefore, 6 years seems more likely. Even using the 8 year average, the DP equivalent LWOP cases are still $1 million more expensive than their DP counterparts ($2 million @ 2% annual increase).

So the death penalty costs reside mainly in appeals costs. Life without parole prisoners get the same appeals and should be considered to bear the same costs.

And if the death penalty is abolished, abolitionists will turn to eliminate life without parole as well and will drive the appeals costs higher than death penalty appeals since there is no execution to end the process of a life without parole prisoner.

Lastly, the cost for justice does not have to be so high for the execution of murderers. If we only allowed appeals that are relevant in proving one's innocence and eliminated the many more that are used merely as delaying tactics, it would save millions in taxpayer dollars.

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