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The Moratorium, Excessive Cost and Other Head Fakes

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Death penalty opponents, including, for example, the ACLU, argue that capital punishment is too expensive, certainly compared to the costs of life without parole, and that we would be smarter and safer if we used the money currently invested in seeking capital punishment for more effective police work and other public safety programs. It all sounds nice.  And it would be nice, if it were true.


1. Those who do their best to drive up the cost of capital prosecutions by filing multitudinous motions, including numerous eve-of-execution motions, are not ideally positioned to shed crocodile tears about the expenses they do everything they can to create. The majority of these motions, moreover, are not designed to make sure we have the "real killer."  To the contrary, motions contesting factual guilt are by far the exception, not the rule. The procedure-oriented motions that actually get filed are mostly devoid of merit, and hundreds if not thousands of them are flat-out gaming the system.


2. While we can be happy to see the ACLU speak up in favor of expanded police power to help keep us safe, I have some trouble reconciling that with the more typical ACLU position, which is that even the present extent of police power is excessive if not affirmatively dangerous.  This might lead a cynic to think that the ACLU position is not entirely sincere.


3. I am no expert on the finances of either capital punishment or imprisonment, but I believe there is room to question the assertion that death penalty litigation costs more, and perhaps vastly more, than LWOP. If a murderer is imprisoned at 30 and dies at 70, the taxpayers will be on the hook for 40 years of incarceration. With the elaborate additional security that will be needed for inmates of this type -- killers who'll know they have nothing but canteen privileges to lose by doing it again -- the costs of 40 years' imprisonment are certain to be enormous.


4. Assuming arguendo that capital litigation does indeed cost substantially more than LWOP, however, the question whether it's worth the candle is for the taxpayers to decide. It is well known that these prosecutions are costly (well known because abolitionists make sure it is). Despite this, public support for the death penalty is overwhelming, and has remained stable or grown slightly over the last five years.


5. The centerpiece of the argument -- that we are safer without capital punishment and its costs than with it -- is demonstrably incorrect. Indeed, recent history proves beyond sensible dispute that we are more secure when executions are carried out and more endangered when they are constrained. In other words, so far as the "moratorium" goes  --  been there, done that.  Abolitionists tend not to talk about this, or if they must, do so in dismissive tones.  This is why: 


In the late sixties and seventies, the United States had a virtual suspension of executions. From the end of 1965 through 1980, there were only six of them. Over that same 15-year period, the murder rate doubled. It rose from 5.1 murder victims per 100,000 to 10.2. The number of murders in 1965 was slightly less than 10,000; the number in 1980 was 23,040 -- an increase of somewhat more than 13,000 murder victims per year.


When the moratorium petered out and executions began again in significant numbers, a very different picture emerged. In the 15-year period from 1991 to 2005 (inclusive), there were 861 executions. In that same period, the murder rate dropped from 9.8 to 5.5 -- a decrease of 44%. The number of murder victims decreased from 24,700 to about 16,200. In other words, with the end of the moratorium and the resumption of executions, there were more than 8000 fewer murder victims in a single year. To my knowledge, no one has claimed, much less shown, that funneling more money to the police will result in anything approaching that enormous improvement in public safety.


Of course it is almost certainly the case that circumstances in addition to the resumption of capital punishment contributed to the precipitous decline in the murder rate. But to say that we would be safer by eliminating the death penalty simply blinks the reality of the last 50 years.


1 Comment

The readers of this blog who are not members of the choir you are preaching to get most nervous regarding what you appropriately term the "centerpiece of the argument." In a world where the deterrent effect of capital punishment is an unassailable fact, apologists for criminal behavior would have no credibility, no ability to mold legislation, and would fall from their lofty perch atop the moral high ground.

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