Last Thursday, the Commonwealth of Virginia executed Teresa Lewis for her role in the murders of her husband and stepson.
With the normal reaction amplified in this particular case because of Lewis’s Full Scale IQ of 72, the execution revived a larger policy debate on the death penalty itself. While most arguments rest on a moral basis, the death penalty has a noteworthy economic effect as well.
When a person is sentenced to death, the execution does not occur the next day or even that week; some are delayed as long as 20 years after the sentence is levied. While the case goes through the appeals process, the state still pays for incarceration. It costs between $18,000 and $50,000 to imprison someone for a year in the United States. The average length of the appeals process for a capital punishment case is between 10 and 20 years.
As a deterrent, capital punishment is neither as effective as advocates claim nor as ineffective as opponents argue; deterrence is hard to predict and is too inaccurate to use as fact.
In theory, the stiff sentence should reduce crime, but the homicide rate during the 1980s remained high while the rate of executions rose. During the 1960s, when the death penalty was almost never used, homicide rates increased. This suggests that there is neither enough evidence to overturn nor to support the claims about the deterrent effect of capital punishment.
The cost of death penalty cases will usually be much higher than ordinary trials because there is more at stake than in a non-death penalty case. Not to mention, the cost of wrongful punishment looms much larger for cases of capital punishment than for imprisonment or fines. Capital punishment cases are also generally more expensive because the trials are split into a ‘determination of guilt’ phase and a ‘punishment’ phase, which lengthens the legal process.
The appeals process is often mandatory to protect the convict’s rights, a process that is expensive and lengthy. Lastly, housing death row inmates is more expensive than housing non-death row inmates because there is no higher sanction that can be threatened to prevent them from being unruly or committing more crimes in prison.
So, why not just shorten the appeals process? The problem with that is it may lead to hurried trials and wrongful executions, much like what almost happened to Earl Washington.
Washington was a Virginian who was convicted of rape and murder in 1984 and sentenced to death. However, DNA tests in the 1990s and further DNA tests in October 2000 excluded Washington as the perpetrator. Former Gov. Jim Gilmore granted him a full pardon and he was released after spending 16 years in prison. Had the appeals process been shortened, an innocent man could have been executed.
What about escape? If a person is sentenced to death and executed then there will never be a chance of them getting out of prison, but if they are sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole they could attempt to escape from jail.
Most prison escapes take place in minimum-security prisons and are thwarted shortly after. Escapes from maximum-security prisons (where a murderer would be jailed) are almost non-existent. In 1998, the most recent year for which data is available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 6,530 people escaped or were AWOL from state prisons. That was a little more than one half of 1 percent of the total population of 1,100,224 prisoners.
Because of these factors, responsible governments must exercise caution in employing capital punishment. I do not think the death penalty should be outlawed; if it does in fact have a deterrent effect on crime, it should remain on the books.
However, because of the inherent costs, it should play a much smaller role in the penal system and be limited to only the grossest cases.