There is a saying that “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” That statement does not stop states with the death penalty from spending more per condemned inmate than they spend per pupil in public schools. The fact is that the death penalty is an incredibly expensive endeavor. For example, according to an infographic released by the California Innocence Project regarding capital punishment in the state, California has spent $4 billion on the government-sponsored death penalty since 1973. To be sure, there is more money spent on public education in most states than on death rows, but that money is an investment in the future. It is not a foolhardy escapade that is supposed to end in the termination of a person’s life.
California has the largest death row in the country, with 727 people. It spends $177 million per year on people with capital convictions. That breaks down to $244,138 per inmate. In contrast, California only spent about $7,200 per student in 2011-12, in a state with 6.2 million students.
Even though California’s budget will increase per-student funding over a five-year period, the amount spent per death row inmate will continue to dwarf the amount spent per student. Given the huge spending gap between education and death, the state should reconsider its funding priorities.
California is not the only state with this problem. In fact, the five states with the lowest per-pupil spending (Mississippi, Arizona, Oklahoma, Idaho, and Utah) all have the death penalty, and three of the five (Mississippi, Arizona, Oklahoma) have active capital systems, meaning they have executed inmates in the last two years.
Contrast that with the five top states in per-student funding (Wyoming, Vermont, New Jersey, Alaska and New York. Of these five, only Wyoming considers capital punishment, it only has one person on death row, and it has not executed anyone in over 20 years.
While a direct connection cannot be made, it is certainly fair to say that states only have a certain number of dollars to spend, particularly in this economic climate, and the choice that a state makes to have capital punishment takes away resources from other government functions, including education.
The costs of the death penalty are way too high. There is, of course, the risk of killing an innocent person. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 142 people have been exonerated from death row. While some might see exonerations as evidence that the justice system works, most people realize that anyone who spends a day in prison for a crime he or she did not commit with the threat of death hanging over his or her head is living in the worst hell imaginable.
This still hasn't stopped many states. Georgia’s 2011 execution of Troy Anthony Davis shook the world as he was almost certainly innocent, and if there was doubt of his innocence there was far more doubt about his guilt. Texas, the state which carries out the most executions in the country, may have executed an innocent man in 2004. Cameron Todd Willingham was killed by the state for the arson-murder of his three daughters. Several fire investigators looked at the circumstances of the fire and stated that the fire was probably not arson. The fire investigator hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission wrote a report giving a similar conclusion, which meant that a state body may have had to come to terms with the largest cost of the death penalty, killing an innocent man. Instead, Governor Rick Perry hastily replaced some members of the commission as it was about to hear the Willingham report. The cost of potentially killing an innocent man was compounded when the state’s attorney general, Greg Abbott, stated that the commission did not have jurisdiction to examine evidence prior to September 2005.
The cost of an innocent life taken by the state cannot be measured. Capital punishment is a wasteful system even if everyone on death row were guilty of heinous murders. There is no evidence that it deters crime, and it is far more expensive than permanent imprisonment. Abolishing the death penalty and replacing it with permanent imprisonment or life without parole is not about letting a person escape the consequences of a crime, it is about ensuring that the state does not waste precious resources on an unnecessary punishment that does not make society any safer.
One study found that California spends $1 million more to try someone for capital murder than it does for non-capital cases. The Tennessee comptroller found that it cost over 45% more to try a capital case than it does to try a case that would result in a life sentence or a sentence of permanent imprisonment.
California and Tennessee could better use that money on many other government functions. In terms of education, states with the death penalty could invest instead in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which decrease the likelihood of filling the school-to-prison pipeline.
There is also a saying that “you can pay me now or pay me later, but you will pay me.” It would be so much better to spend money on a child’s education now than their death sentence later.