Death and Taxes

These days, those of us who follow policy debates are suffering from overload: same-sex marriage, immigration policy, foreign policy—not to mention the re-emergence of pocketbook issues like collective bargaining rights—are generating lots of heat, if distressingly little light.

And then, of course, there are the perennial complaints about taxes.

Everyone, it seems, wants government to cost less–until someone suggests cuts to our particular sacred cows. In Washington, we see lawmakers eager to de-fund Planned Parenthood and NPR become livid when someone suggests cutting military spending. Here in Indiana, an eminently reasonable proposal by Governor Daniels and the Chief Justice to incarcerate fewer nonviolent offenders and save the billions of tax dollars that we would otherwise spend building additional prisons has been eviscerated by defenders of “law and order.”

In fact, the criminal justice system offers one of the best opportunities to save significant tax dollars, beginning with abolition of the death penalty.

People have different opinions about the morality of capital punishment, and I leave those arguments to ethicists and theologians. There are, however, some pretty compelling practical and fiscal arguments for abolition.

As a practical matter, years of scholarship have confirmed that capital punishment is not a deterrent. In 2009, states with the death penalty had murder rates of 5.2 per 100,000 residents; in states without, the rate was 3.9—a 35% difference. Police agree. In a recent poll, police chiefs ranked the death penalty last among ways to reduce violent crime; they also considered it the least efficient use of taxpayer money, and complained that it diverted money from more effective crime control measures.

Which brings us to the fiscal issues.

In 2010, Legislative Services analyzed capital punishment costs in Indiana, and determined that the average cost of a capital trial and direct appeal was 449,000–over ten times the 42,658 cost of a life-without-parole case.  In California, taxpayers pay 114,000,000 more each year than it would cost to keep those same offenders imprisoned for life. In Kansas, capital cases are 70% more expensive than non-capital cases, even including the costs of lifelong incarceration. In Texas, a death penalty case costs three times what it would cost to imprison someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years.

Advocates of the death penalty often complain that the higher costs are a result of “interminable appeals,” but that isn’t actually true. Appeals do add costs, but a capital trial is very expensive. Cells on death row and extra staff cost more.

We could eliminate appeals and execute people immediately upon conviction. That would save money. Unfortunately, such a proposal raises another pesky problem we have with capital punishment—the fact that we convict innocent people. Since 1973, over 130 people have been released from death row because they were found to be innocent. These were not folks freed on a “technicality,” they were people wrongfully convicted.

One of those people will be in Indianapolis on April 14th. Randy Steidl will speak at the IUPUI Campus Center at 7 p.m. about the 17 years he spent on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Randy comes from a law-abiding middle-class family; his brother is a retired State Trooper. His story is troubling, to say the least: there was evidence of the sort of police and prosecutorial misconduct that—more often than we might like to think—accompanies the rush to solve high-profile murders.

As Steidl says, “If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone.”

I guess that’s one of those “moral” arguments I said I wasn’t going to make.


  1. I was struck recently by the illuminating sloganeering about state expenses: Hoosier taxes pay to “educate, medicate and incarcerate.”
    Teabaggers holler about Medicaid and public schools but fall silent on the massive costs of “locking ’em up and throwing away the keys!”

  2. I agree. I raise some of the same arguments with people and usually they seem to turn to personal attacks and claims that I am “soft on crime.”

    Yet, for instance I recently read a DePauw study on the “drug-free zones” in Indianapolis. Places where simple possession (of more than 3g) can get you an A felony. I have asked hundreds of people who they thought should get more time convict A possesses 1 kilogram of cocaine detained in his apartment 500 feet from a park; or convict B who possesses an 8-ball (slightly more than 3g) of cocaine. Everyone seems to agree that the guy with more weight should recieve a stricter sentence. Then they are surprised to find out that in Indiana, both could easily face 35 years in prison. There could be many changes made to current statutes in Indiana that would save the state money by lowering incarceration for minor felons. Despite that, many are opposed because of “public safety,” and few want to know the facts/arguments behind the debate to revise statutes.

    side note: I can’t wait to hear Mr. Steidl speak.

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