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Death Penalty Brings More Costs than Benefits

By German Lopez · January 22nd, 2014 · Commentary
commentary 2014-01-22

Ohio is one of 32 states that allow the death penalty, and the United States is the only Western country where the practice is legal. One would think that, under those circumstances, U.S. and Ohio officials would act rather carefully about how the state kills people.

Think again.

On Jan. 16, Ohio took 26 minutes to kill convicted killer and rapist Dennis McGuire with a new cocktail of drugs that had never been tried before in the United States. It remains unclear whether the drugs were to blame for what appeared to be a slow, agonizing death for McGuire — who clearly struggled, snorting and gasping during the process — but it’s somewhat troubling that the state was so willing to try out the new drugs when the results are still so unclear.

Of course, no one — at least, no one I know — feels sorry for McGuire. In fact, it really shouldn’t need to be said that my heart does not go out to the man who killed and raped a pregnant woman. But getting dragged down into such personal issues is where the conversation typically goes with the death penalty, which makes it difficult to hold a serious conversation about how the government executes criminals.

The real issue at play is much larger. It’s about the entire criminal justice system. Should the state and public use the criminal justice system — a tool meant for rehabilitation and public safety — for vengeance and retribution as well? Is that really the most efficient use of tax dollars?

Or as Martin Luther King Jr. put it when asked about the death penalty, “Since the purpose of jailing a criminal is that of reformation rather than retribution — improving him rather than paying him back for some crime that he has done — it is highly inconsistent to take the life of a criminal. How can he improve if his life is taken?”

The sentiment is backed by the experiences of other countries: By focusing more on rehabilitation and treatment — sometimes in institutions that look like four-star hotels — Nordic countries manage to hold down prison re-entry and crime rates and save money on imprisonment. 

Meanwhile, the United States keeps more prisoners per capita than any other country and holds one of the highest prison re-entry rates in the world, costing taxpayers billions of dollars each year.

But even if one disagrees with King’s take and simply supports the death penalty for the legitimate public safety cause — to forever keep a criminal away from the greater public — then life imprisonment without parole is clearly a better option. 

For one, numerous studies found it’s actually more expensive for the state to kill someone than keep them locked up for life.

It might seem counterintuitive, but just consider the extensive jury selections and lengthy appeals death penalty cases require. 

Those costly checks aren’t really up for debate, either. Even within a society that accepts capital punishment, most Americans understand the state can’t afford to kill innocent people. Doing so would violate the entire premise of the criminal justice system; it would actually turn the system into the criminal elements it seeks to fight.

The saved money from simply imprisoning people for life could go a long way to actually stopping abhorrent crimes like McGuire’s. If the criminal justice system can save money by not killing people, those funds can be redirected to actual crime fighting. That would, presumably, prevent more crime than spending so many resources just to kill a handful of criminals each year.

It’s understandable for Ohioans to morally wrestle with the death penalty. After someone rapes and kills a pregnant woman, it’s difficult not to feel some sort of anger or even hatred toward his crimes. It’s hard to imagine such a terrible person sitting in a cell for the rest of his life on the public dollar. 

In that sense, it’s easy and emotionally satisfying to talk about strapping dynamite on convicted killers or bringing back firing squads to hand out executions, as some talk-radio hosts and commenters did following McGuire’s execution. 

But Americans should be more careful with assuming guilt and allowing their governments to kill people. In a world where the federal government is looking more and more like an incompetent version of Big Brother, it’s important to note the potential for abuses and miscalculations before society allows the grueling, torturous execution of any person, regardless of the obscenity of his or her crimes. 

And if the philosophical arguments don’t hit home, it’s still significant that in many cases repealing the death penalty could actually save the taxpayer money.

CONTACT GERMAN LOPEZ: glopez@citybeat.com or @germanrlopez



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