Capital Punishment Essay, Research Paper
This page aims to discuss capital punishment as rationally as possible. I propose to present
information which may help people make up their minds about whether or not capital
punishment keeps them safe, makes economic sense, or provides a satisfactory “closure” for the
victims of homicide. How, if at all, this information affects your response, either emotional or
political, to capital punishment remains entirely up to you.
The questions of fact concerning capital punishment fall into three general areas: does
capital punishment , freeing social resources for better purposes than warehousing and feeding
murders, or does it actually cost more, consuming resources that could go into preventing crime?
Does capital punishment strike fear into offenders, saving innocent lives by would-be killers?
And, finally, the courts make mistakes; what does capital punishment mean to an innocent
These questions fit together to define a complex problem. If experience showed capital
punishment saved lives by deterring offenders, the cost would not matter; a certainty that capital
punishment would save innocent lives might even make the risk of wrongful convictions
acceptable. If no risk at all existed of an error by the courts, the question of whether capital
punishment saves innocent lives by deterring murder might matter less. And we cannot limit the
cost of capital punishment simply to money, since society has limited resources, and can only
spend so much on criminal justice. A society that spends money on executions can’t spend that
money on police officers, courts, or jails; to say nothing of schools, vocational programs, or
other measures aimed at preventing crime.
If the broader public view of capital punishment does not reflect the reality, how does
capital punishment work in the United States? How do alternative systems work in countries
such as Canada? And if of responses to murder, and the effect of those responses, differ from
the reality, why?
Finally, does no response but reason have any place in the debate over capital
punishment? The offences which attract capital statutes and death sentences include the most
heinous, appalling, and disgusting acts. Does have no legitimate part to play in this debate?
The cost of capital punishment
Estimates of the cost of capital punishment will inevitably vary greatly, since estimating
the cost of each execution requires multiplying the excess cost of a capital trial by the number of
capital trials, and then dividing the result by the number of executions. I will try to provide a
minimum estimate for the cost of an execution.
Let us then use the cost figures for Texas provided by Dan Cutrer, who quoted estimates
made by two Texas counties. These counties estimated the cost of a capital trial at between
$400,000 and $600,000. If we subtract the cost of a non-capital murder trial ($75,000) from the
median of these estimates, we get about $425,000 to try each capital defendant.
If we assume that juries will pass a death sentence in 80% of all capital trials, and that
the appeal courts will continue to invalidate about 30% of all death sentences, we can assume
that about 50% of all capital trials will result in an actual execution; so the actual cost of each
execution (counting only the initial trial costs) comes in at $850,000.
Invested productively, at a conservative 5% rate of return, that sum would yield $45,000
per year; more than enough to support a “lifer” in jail indefinitely, with enough money left over
to go some distance toward hiring an additional jail guard or police officer.
No estimate I know of that allows for the cost of spending a large sum of money in a
single lump arrives at any conclusion but this; indeed, a Florida study arrived at a total cost (for
each execution) of over two million dollars. Capital punishment does cost more than any other
penalty exacted by the criminal justice system; even my estimates (which reflect only the cost of
the original trials, and not appeals, death row housing, or execution infrastructure costs) come to
Why the additional costs?
Capital trials cost more for pretty much the same reason general aviation aircraft cost
roughly ten times as much as surface vehicles: the greater consequences of a failure. Defendants
sentenced to life can always continue to appeal and work toward new evidence while they serve
their sentences; defendants sentenced to death do not have that option. Death sentences also add
an issue to the appellate process; the issue of time. The appeals process for a life sentence can go
on while the convict serves the sentence; but the defendant can not “serve” a death sentence until
the courts have dealt with all the appeals. This leaves the defence and the prosecution fighting
about not only the factual and legal issues, but also about the speed of the process.
The nature of capital punishment also makes the determination of culpability complex.
Adjudicating punishment which (under the US. constitution) fits only the most heinous of
murderers involves complex consideration of motive, state of mind, and other matters a court
can never really ascertain. As a substitute for certainty about the facts, the courts can only resort
to a hair splitting scrupulousness about the process of determining both guilt and the degree of
guilt. All of this takes both time and money.
The Death Penalty Information Center publishes a of various investigations into the high
cost of capital punishment.
Preventing Murder: Does Capital Punishment Protect the Innocent?
The idea that capital punishment “deters” murder rests on a straightforward assumption:
fear influences people; most people fear death; therefore, the threat of a judicial sentence will
influence people to refrain from murder. Unfortunately, the fear of death does not govern people
to the degree this assumes. If it did, neither wars nor extreme sports would happen, people would
obey speed limits and wear safety belts, and the tobacco industry wouldn’t exist. If you want to
cite the rational instinct for self preservation as a reason capital punishment must “work”, you
have to discount most of history, as well as most contemporary human behaviour. Nor does the
“deterrence” theory account for the most striking homicide statistic: of all forms of homicide, the
one that takes place most often, in fact more often than all the others combined, always entails
the death of the perpetrator: suicide. People kill themselves more often than they kill anyone
else: wives, friends, business associates, even more often than they kill rival drug dealers.
Attributing any special power over homicide to the fear of death flies in the face of this simple
The mass of the statistical evidence about murder rates and capital punishment backs this
up. At the very least, we cannot prove capital punishment prevents murder, so we cannot
reasonably base a policy on the assumption it does. Starting with the simplest of statistics, if
capital punishment reliably prevented murder, countries with capital punishment should
generally have a lower murder rate then countries without. That this does not occur; indeed, the
United States, with a highly developed and prosperous society, a factor which generally reduces
murder rates, still has a murder rate about three times as high as most other Western
industrialized nation. Within the United States, use of the capital punishment by an individual
state does not predict the murder rate.
Even a casual examination of the available figures makes it clear that if capital
punishment has any effect on the disposition to commit murder, it has less effect than most other
social factors. A society with the goal of protecting innocent people has no reason to institute
capital punishment before changing many other social and criminal justice policies which have a
much greater effect on the murder rate.
Whether or not capital punishment “deters” offenders contemplating murder, we cannot
doubt it prevents the offender from ever repeating their crime.
This section contains sections on the observed effect of capital punishment in the , then a
discussion of the of capital punishment, and some discussion of from the data.
One Example of the Effects of Capital Punishment
Even if social factors other than the use of capital punishment account for the lack of
evidence capital punishment prevents murder when comparing different countries, or even
different states, if capital punishment “worked”, we should expect the murder rate to fall with the
introduction of capital punishment, and to increase with abolition; the Canadian experience
shows quite clearly that this does not always happen.
The following statistical summary offers fairly strong evidence for the proposition that
the presence of capital punishment on the books, its “availability to society” does cause an
increase in the murder rate. Under the Canadian conditions which prevailed during the time in
question, the mere presence of capital punishment on the books did not reduce (or even arrest
the increase in) the murder rate; when Parliament replaced an ineffective capital statute with a
uniform and severe sentence for all premeditated murder, the increase in the murder rate stopped
abruptly, giving way to a continuing decline.
The time series data below begins in 1962, the year before the last actual execution in
Canada. The murder rate per 100000 population in Canada rose between 1962 and 1975 by
0.127 per year. After the abolition of capital punishment in 1976, it declined at the rate of 0.029
per year. The plot of these rates looks like this: Table of Canadian Murder Rated Before and
After the Abolition of Capital Punishment