NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 4, 2007

A New Jersey commission's verdict against capital punishment has the look of a foregone conclusion.  But their evidence is ambiguous at best and sometimes contrary.  Parts of the report actually deflate some cherished myths of death penalty foes, says Investor's Business Daily (IBD).

One myth is that capital punishment's costs are greater than those of life imprisonment without parole.  The panel stuck with this claim while admitting that it is not possible to measure these costs with any degree of precision.

But actually, some costs can be measured, like those of housing inmates, says IBD.  And they're in the report:

  • According to New Jersey's Department of Corrections, it costs $72,602 a year to house each death row inmate.
  • That's $32,481 more than the $40,121 cost for an inmate in a maximum-security prison.
  • Based on this, the department said a ban on executions would save the state $974,430 to $1,299,240 over the lifetime of each inmate who gets life without parole instead of death.

But this calculation reflects New Jersey's experience, in which death row inmates never get executed, says IBD.  The department assumed they would live 30 to 40 years after sentencing, just as the lifers do.  But the cost argument melts away once one assumes the death penalty is actually enforced:

  • If the time from sentencing to execution averages two years, the death penalty costs just $145,202 per inmate.
  • That number is far less than the $1,203,630 to $1,604,840 for lifers.

Overall, today's "standards of decency" still allow for punishment that fits the crime, says IBD.  It's unlikely that the public wants a law that would let someone like Osama bin Laden, if he is ever brought to justice, spend the rest of his life in the taxpayers' care.

Source: Editorial, "Try Enforcing It," Investor's Business Daily, January 4, 2007.

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