|World Coalition Against Death Penalty
- According to the ACLU, holding one person on death row costs taxpayers $90,000 per year over and above the cost of keeping that inmate in the general population.
- The state spends $10.9 million on each capital trial
- California spends as much per year pursuing executions as it would cost to hire 2,500 teachers
Of course these are impressive numbers and should be sufficient to piss off most people, especially in light of the fact that murder rates have not gone done. Clearly we should have more teachers and pay them better and we should abolish the death penalty. But it is a cynical and simplistic analysis to criticize the death penalty from such a cost-benefit perspective.
Killing for Fun and Profit
|World Coalition Against Death Penalty
The death penalty is state sanctioned revenge, and as such is the legitimized manifestation of a revenge fantasy shared by many. Kill the bad guys! This is perhaps the main reason for its popular support. The victim of the death penalty is transformed into a beast by the media prior to trial, thus increasing public empathy for the prosecution and its lust for revenge. Never mind that the victim is often innocent and almost always poor, at least justice was served (maybe)!
Why do Americans have so much desire for revenge, if not for their own sense of being wronged? Of course, we have been wronged, repeatedly and legally, by our bosses, politicians and the ruling elite (and occasionally illegally, too, by street criminals or white collar crooks). We are also made to believe that society is filled with dangerous predators who might attack us or a loved one without warning and that each execution miraculously makes us safer by ridding the world of one more of these monsters. Therefore, support for the death penalty is due to a sense of powerlessness (and the misperception that something is being done about it).
Yet it is the state that decides what is or is not a crime and who should be punished. Those who cause injury and death to their employees by emphasizing profit over safety are considered good businessmen. Those who kill civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan to protect the interests of oil and arms producers are considered good soldiers. Those with good lawyers who can get evidence, witnesses or jurors thrown out are often set free, even if they actually did the crime. People who die because of lack of health care or pollution in their communities are simply the unfortunate victims of an otherwise legitimate system in which everyone can succeed if they only play by the rules and work hard. (Apparently these poor souls just weren’t working hard enough and certainly no one should be punished for their deaths).
Schools Good, Jails Bad
A common mantra on the left is “Money for schools, not for prisons (or wars, or bailouts).” Of course this sentiment is understandable when education budgets are constantly slashed, while trillions are spent on Wall Street bailouts, wars, and incarcerating more people than any other country in the world. However, the logic behind this comparison is that if money is available for wars, banks and prisons, then money should also available to educate those who will manage the wars, banks and prisons of the future. What kind of argument is it to oppose war because of the financial cost, or because some are denied the right to profit from it, rather than because it involves the slaughter of humans?
Likewise, why oppose the death penalty because it is expensive, rather than because it kills [often innocent] people? Punishment for crimes (violent or otherwise) does not cause those crimes to go away or provide any reparations for those victimized. The rich and powerful remain rich and powerful, while the poor remain poor, and crimes continue to occur.
Why not oppose the death penalty and prisons because they help keep the lower classes low and the ruling class in power? Consider that the death penalty is the most extreme expression of state power over its citizens, and a constant reminder of what could happen if one steps too far out of line, or if one is blamed for doing so. Yet lesser degrees of state violence and punishment are routinely meted out to keep the rabble in line (e.g., against protesting workers and students in France, Ireland, Greece, Spain, and England).
Some argue that spending more money on education keeps people out of prison, so perhaps the slogan, “Money for schools, not for prison,” is indeed relevant. However, it is not a poverty of education that causes people to be locked up, but just plain poverty. Poor people get stuck with overworked and underpaid public defenders who are less able to get them off than high priced celebrity lawyers. They are more likely to accept plea bargains, even when innocent, because they lack the money and hope to fight. They are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods with high crime rates and high police presence and thus are more likely to be arrested in the first place.
What about the staggering illiteracy rates of prisoners? Education can certainly help people learn to read. However, their inability to read and write is more a product of growing up poor, than a failure of the education system. Poverty creates an achievement gap before kids have even started school and worsens the achievement gap as they move through the system. Rather than diverting tax dollars from prisons to schools, a better solution would be to divert wealth from the rich to the rest of us.