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Beat This Issue to Death

© Keith Knight

This is one of those issues where emotional arguments get in the way of practical arguments. It doesn’t matter if you think the death penalty is morally wrong. The simple truth is that the death penalty doesn’t work and costs taxpayer money. It is an anachronism that needs to go. We got rid of punishments like flogging long ago.



  1. TJ wrote:

    Would those college students have cared enough to do the work to exonerate those 138 inmates if they had been given a life sentence instead of the death penalty?

    Obviously that’s not an argument for the death penalty, just that we should be for keeping innocent people out of prison, no matter their sentence.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink
  2. Dan wrote:

    But when you are dead it doesn’t matter if you were actually not guilty, you are still dead. Whoops sorry isn’t acceptable. A friend told me, you can’t call yourself pro-life if you are against abortions but for the death penalty and war. While we’re at it lets get rid of private prisons, having a prison lobby in Washington is BAD news.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  3. Arthanyel wrote:

    Unfortunately life in prison with no parole doesn’t work either – not as a deterrent and certainly not economically. The only reason death penalty cases cost more than life in prison is that the endless appeals drag on and on and the legal bills swamp the support costs. That would be an argument in favor of a QUICKER death penalty, if it wasn’t for all those innocent people on Death Row.

    And those numbers should be fully stated – 1,192 people executed, 140 found innocent, or about 11.5% innocent. That is well beyond any statistical fluctuation, which means the system of deciding to impose the death penalty is not working well, and it is almost certain that SOME of the executed were also innocent, they just were killed before a college student could study their case. The whole appeals process is there specifically to flush out innocent people wrongly accused, so the good news is it is working somewhat (?) but still at ruinous cost.

    The problem, however, is that life in prison is also ruinously expensive and that cost never goes away (until they die anyway). While the cost per death penalty case is much higher than a non-death penalty case (again, primarily because of endless appeals) the NUMBER of lifers is much higher so the total cost for locking them up forever is also billions of dollars.

    And for those that wonder if it is morally acceptable to kill someone for a crime, putting them in prison until they die IS KILLING THEM FOR A CRIME, you are just choosing the slowest and most painful method. A good argument could be made that is MORE morally acceptable to shoot them quickly than it is to lock them up forever and make them die slowly.

    The bottom line is that there are no good solutions. If there is an individual that is so dangerous to the society as a whole that our only choice is to sequester them until they die (whether naturally or unnaturally) then our only choices are about how to kill them as humanely and inexpensively as possible while minimizing the number of “innocent” people wrongly killed by the process. If there is ANY WAY to not sequester them forever, then we should take that option. But if the only option is death (sooner or later) we need to fix the process to make it more accurate, faster, and cheaper.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  4. ThatGuy wrote:

    I agree with Arthanyel to an extent. If and when people decide to commit serious crimes (rape, murder, etc.) then I think capital punishment is fair game, the legal system just needs to figure out how to make it cheap, quick and accurate.

    Of course that is really hard to do, but is still probably easier than trying to fix the root causes that drive people to commit serious crimes.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Permalink
  5. ebdoug wrote:

    Anders Behring Breivik if convicted 21 years in prison. Gives one pause for thought.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  6. PATRIOTSGT wrote:

    Arthanyel makes good points and some sense. Ebdoug brings up a chilling thought as well. I think prison and the death penalty is as much about punishment as it is protecting the populace. There is no fool proof court system and there will always be wrongful convictions. There will also be wrongful not guilty verdicts as well. Aside from creating a penal island with enough space for agriculture I don’t know of a better system. Many if not most of the wrongful convictions I’m guessing took place before DNA testing became a better science as is today so hopefully new incidences won’t occur at the 11.5% rate. I think capital punishment serves a purpose like in the case of John Allen Muhammad who murdered at least 10 people in cold blood. His appeals process ended after 6 years and he was executed. IMO that was the right thing to do. I can’t say for all but definately there are some capital punishments like his that I would agree with.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  7. Max wrote:

    Since whether the death penalty exists or not has minimal practical consequences (either it’s a tiny loss or a tiny gain, and nobody knows which) – why not use emotion to decide? Emotion isn’t getting in the way, it’s helping to make an otherwise impossible choice.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  8. Michael wrote:

    I see your Breivik and raise you a Willingham.

    While I am against capital punishment and really wish (solely for political purposes) that the 11.5% statistic held water, it doesn’t. A more accurate measure should consider those on death row who have not yet been executed, which is 3189 as of January 1, 2012 ( That would make the rate more like 3.2%. Still not insignificant, but much smaller.

    Lastly, I disagree with the characterization that life without parole is the moral equivalent of killing the person. If I had time, I’d look up some quotes from Shawshank where Andy talks about hope. Unless you can provide 100% certainty of the person’s guilt (which is impossible), executing the prisoner at any point has the probability of denying an innocent person of the hope and dignity of life. Even if that is 1 person out of 1,000,000, that is still too many.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  9. Michael wrote:

    How is potentially killing an innocent person a “minimal practical consequence?”

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  10. Arthanyel wrote:

    Michael: Thanks for the clarification on the percentages. Of course since we don’t know how many inncoent people have already been executed we don’t know the real number – but 3.2% or 11.5% is still too high.

    That said, condemning someone to decades in prison with no hope of parole is not giving them “hope” – it’s torture. There is no “dignity of life” being locked up like an animal for the rest of your days. The only difference between killing them immediately and killing them slowly is the chance, whatever that is, that they are actually innocent and as long as they are alive we might figure it out. We should put the onus on making sure that only the guilty are punished, and on making sure that if a crime is so horrendus it demands a death sentance (or life without parole) that we are as certain as humanly possible that they are actually guilty.

    Unfortunately, life is not perfect, and human systems are not – can not be – perfect. Making the argument that 1 error in millions is unacceptable is making an argument for a perfect system – and since that is impossible, it’s a questionable argument.

    The other unavoidable issue is that all of this costs us an enormous amount of money. If you want to make the “moral” argument it would be better to imprison for life than execute, then you are saying it is morally better to spend $3M dollars PER INMATE (average cost for a lifer times 20 years) on the off chance they are innocent, than spend the money on living, innocent civilians. You are saying we would rather spend money on prisons and in the process deny our undeniably innocent citizens health care, food support, police, fire, education, and all the other things we could spend the money on instead?

    I wouldn’t. If we have to choose between giving a loaf of bread to a convicted serial child rapist so he can have the “dignity of life” is his solitary confinement, and giving that same loaf of bread to a living child so they don’t starve, I think the moral decision is pretty clear.

    So I don’t like the death penalty, and I don’t like life without parole, but we have to do the best we can – and as accurately, cheaply, and quickly as possible.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Permalink
  11. johnny ro wrote:

    I agree it should change.

    An alternative view of potential change is that executions should be conducted faster. China shoots them within a day or two, right?

    This approach would not address imperfections in the US prosecutorial/judicial system, just the costs.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  12. Iron Knee wrote:

    Arthanyel, why do you keep saying that it costs more to lock someone up for life than to execute them? Everything I’m seeing says the opposite — that life without parole is less expensive. Do you have a reference for something that says otherwise?

    I also have a bit of a problem with you saying that prison is the same as death. People in prison have written books and done other productive things.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  13. oregonbird wrote:

    Exactly what is the “work” you believe the death penalty is supposed to do? Because as far as I understand it, the death penalty’s “work” is to permanently remove violent sociopaths from society. And frankly, it does its job.

    Let’s put this in perspective. In 1999, a study run by the medical community found that the yearly average of hospital deaths caused by medical malpractice was running at about 195,000 per year. Friendly fire deaths have become *routine* in the past ten years; despite court proceedings, soldiers are still supplied with equipment that is known to be defective. Pharmasuetical companies turn out medication they *know* to be dangerous, and it is left to the survivors of their victims to discover the cause and force the government to stop the murderous corporation from continuing to poison citizens. NO ONE GOES TO JAIL. Ever. Civilian deaths since the beginning of the Iraq War have left more than five *million* children orphaned, in a country that once had an infrastructure that cared for an orphan population of less than 5%.

    None of these facts make killing an innocent man less tragic. But as a nation, we attempt NOT to do so, and when you look at the difference in our courts’ ability to protect citizens, and the disasterously high numbers racked up by our industries —

    We assign a final removal of a human being from society only when his presence can no longer be allowed to endanger his fellow citizens — including those who are fellow prisoners. They deserve safety from such men as well. The death sentence as a measure of law isn’t about closure, or justice, or punishment, or prevention. It’s about decisively removing a danger from society.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  14. Tony wrote:

    Come on. The college students studying cold cases aren’t stoners and jersey-shore-like chicks. It’s law students that spend so much time in the library that they’ve claimed a desk on the fourth floor as their own and just leave their stuff there all the time.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink
  15. PatriotSGT wrote:

    Michael – Unless you can provide 100% certainty of the person’s guilt (which is impossible). It is not impossible. Take the Norwegian killer who said he did it, and states he’d do it again, and is facing 21 years. Where is the justice in that? We have inmates who are the same, admittd they did it and say they’d do it again. There are such evil people in the world and the innocent peoples of the world should be kept safe from them.
    That being said I agree with OregonBird’s thinking on this issue, our system is not perfect and none is, but its not that horrendous either. I also agree with Arthanyel about allocating limited resources. Should we use those reources for the innocent living, or spend them on someone who couldn’t care less about the rest of us.

    Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at 7:16 am | Permalink
  16. Arthanyel wrote:

    IK – I didnt say it was more expensive to lock them up permanently than to execute them. I said it costs a huge amount of money to lock them up permanently. The cost of execution is high only because the endless appeals process consumes millions in extra legal fees. The actual costs of incarceration are very high, and someone living in prison for their whole life costs more than someone living in prison for a few years until they are executed.

    The LEAST expensive solution would be to execute them faster. The problem with it is an unacceptably high rate of innocent people on Death Row.

    And as for living a “productive life” in prison, I doubt many readers here have actually been in prison. I, unfortunately, spent a little time in one during my police reserve years (shadowing a guard, obviously). It is my belief that locking someone up like an animal for the rest of their life is not a blessing in comparison to executing them. It is prolonged torture. Yes, some people use their time to do something useful (like write books) but it is a tiny fraction. Most lifers are just waiting to die.

    We as a society have made the decision to remove such people from society forever. And the number of such people is increasing, placing a huge cost burden on the rest of us. Jail costs are the one of the fastest growing areas (even worse than medical cost growth) and thanks to overcrowding we are releasing many criminals long before they have done their time, most of whom immediately go out and strat committing crimes again.

    This is a better solution than execution?

    Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink
  17. oregonbird wrote:

    Jail costs are rising because prison has become a PROFIT business, run by corporations rather than the state. The profits come from charging more, providing less to the inmates — less food, less medical care, less education, less therapy, less contact with family — and from using prisoners are profit centers; the prisoners are forced – yes, forced – to work for pennies per day, while the for-profit prison severely undercuts any price that a union or private contractor can offer.

    If you want a better solution, you exchange prison for housing and additional education – CHEAPER than prison – and remove business from our prison system.

    And execute prisoners whose DNA matches them to violent crime scenes more than once. Also, please, pedophiles.

    Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at 11:36 pm | Permalink
  18. Arthanyel wrote:

    FYI I did some more research and my estimated cost for life in prison is too high. The average cost per year is closer to $30,000 so it’s more like $600,000 than $3M.

    Oregonbird, thanks and that’s part of a comprehensive solution. Prisons should not be a for-profit business.

    Thursday, April 19, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink
  19. Arthanyel wrote:

    And this CBS article puts the average cost at $60,000 per year – and it a good article about the problems of jail.;contentBody

    Why should we spend $70 BILLION dollars a year on jail? For profit jails are an oxymoron, and we need to deal with the cost explosion.

    This CBS reticle notes a significant amounts of the people in jail are as a result of the war on drugs, yet another reaso to end that war also.

    Sunday, April 22, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink