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Is the Death Penalty Killing Education?


"Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes."

That is the title of a new piece on Doug Berman's Sentencing Law and Policy.  As Doug notes, it's also the first sentence in what he calls this effective FoxNews article, which is headlined, "Just or Not, Cost of Death Penalty Is a Killer for State Budgets."

Having massively lost the battle for public opinion about whether the death penalty is just, and seeking to exploit well-grounded anxiety about excessive government debt, abolitionists are now focusing on capital punishment's expense.  Omitting to mention that their own efforts are largely responsible for said expense, they claim that paying for death penalty litigation is driving state budgets to ruin.  State budgets are in deep trouble, for sure, but it has almost nothing to do with the death penalty.  The major cause by far is the uncontrolled growth of social spending.

But that is a question for another forum.  More to the point for the present assault on the death penalty, I did a few minutes' research on the proposition the abolitionists are pushing.  Is it true that every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes?

As you will not be surprised to learn if you followed abolitionist mendacity about the (not) innocent Roger Keith Coleman, their current claim is  --  well, how should I put it?  --  an outright lie.

See below.

Because capital cases cost state treasuries a good deal of money (almost all of it spent on years of run-the-clock defense motions ranging from unpersuasive to frivolous), it sounds plausible to say, in the words of the SL&P piece, "Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes."

Plausible, yes. But is it true?

Answer: No, it is not true. The actual numbers show the opposite is true.

The most recent ten-year period for which I can find the relevant data runs from the school year 1993-94 to 2003-04. In that period, the number of death sentences imposed was roughly 2550 (source: DPIC webpage). In that same period, the net number of schools closed was -- guess what -- zero. In fact, at exactly the time these hundreds of death sentences were being imposed, more than 10,000 new schools opened. Specifically, over those rampantly death penalty-imposing ten years, the number of schools rose from roughly 85,400 to roughly 95,700. See http://www.infoplease.com/askeds/number-us-public-schools.html, citing the National Center for Education Statistics.

If you do the math, you'll see that, over that period, every time a killer was sentenced to die, four schools opened.

The purpose of the Fox article is to try to persuade the public that, in today's relatively tough times, the costs of the death penalty are taking a bite out of education. It's a smokescreen. Seen in the most charitable possible light, the headline is a tautology impersonating a revelation. In any system of public finance, money given over to Program A must be taken from Program B (or borrowed against the future, which is admittedly a government specialty). But that is true whether Program A is the death penalty, or environmental cleanup or the highway trust fund or NASA.  For that matter, money devoted to prisoner counseling, psychological services, probation, half-way houses, drug rehab, re-entry programs and employment assistance also could be used to build schools.  Yet the spokesmen attacking capital punishment have never, to my knowledge, suggested that the spending on those things be reduced.  The dollars, of course, are all the same color.  So what gives? 

It's fairly obvious.  It's not about the dollars.  It's about the same thing it's always been about with the abolition lobby, namely, putting an end to the death penalty without ever having to convince the electorate it's an unjust punishment.

To the extent money makes a difference when the stakes for justice are this high, the real question, in terms of finance, is whether the death penalty has sufficient merit to be worth the candle in the eyes of the taxpayers who pay for it.


Thus, poking through the smokescreen is the issue all the screeching about cost is designed to circumvent:  Whether we should have a death penalty at all. (The attempted circumvention is all but admitted at the start of the second paragraph of the Fox article, where the author says that we can "[f]orget justice [and] morality" and move right along to dollars and cents).

While the decibel level about the cost of the death penalty has substantially increased over the last few years, the public that pays the bill is utterly unmoved.  As Gallup has found, a quarter of the public says the death penalty is imposed about the right amount, and twice that number  --  half  --  think the ever-so-costly death penalty isn't imposed often enough.    Translation: a citizenry that cares about justice isn't going to forget Timmy McVeigh because of the new, hypocritical and phony liberal angst about cost.


Putting aside the over-the-top rhetoric about the death penalty and schools, I wouldn't care if these guys have a point (and they don't, as Bill so ably shows). The cost of the death penalty is a direct result of a judiciary that ranges from deeply conflicted to overtly hostile to a penalty that is unquestionably constitutional and popular. In other words, the judiciary, by virtue of its position, is illegitimately thwarting the democratic will. And the people are right to push back.

Abolitionists and the lawyers who aid and abet by grinding the justice delivery system to a halt with all order of perfunctory appeals (even for those who have admitted their offense and want to die) are much like the son that kills his parents and then asks for mercy because he is an orphan. The expense of capital punishment is first and foremost, a function of endless appeals available to the condemned.

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