Cost-Benefit Analysis—Life and Death

Cost-Benefit Analysis—Life and Death

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There are those who find capital punishment beyond the pale, even barbaric. Their objections invariably blossom into a moral quandary that concludes two wrongs do not make a right—a false comparison and a morally dubious one at that. 

Once the moral high ground has been yanked out of the debate, opponents of capital punishment angle to the high cost associated with judicial executions. This macabre cost-benefit analysis concludes that the price tag attached to the bureaucracy and legalism of capital punishment is reason enough for its abolition, but what does this say of the value we place on life? 

The claim that judicial execution is morally comparable to, say, the crimes of Stephen Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky is loathsomely false. Hayes and Komisarjevsky broke into the home of the Petit family in Cheshire, Connecticut, bludgeoned Dr. William Petit, then proceeded to beat and rape his wife and daughters before setting the house on fire with them inside. Dr. William Petit lost his family that day and his attackers were sentenced to a maximum of 25 years in prison, due to the abolition of the death penalty in Connecticut. Is judicial execution morally comparable to the massacre of an entire family? Certainly not. 

On the subject of cost-benefit, Professor Thomas J. Kniesner at Syracuse University found that the public is willing to pay between $4 million to $10 million in regulatory costs for each life saved. Extrapolated off the lower figure of $4 million that the public is willing to spend to save lives, Professor Kniesner found that the total cost of a capital punishment-eligible case would have to exceed $56 million for the public at large to find the cost of judicial execution exorbitant. 

On the other hand, according to detractors life is valued at less than $3 million on average when it comes to capital-eligible cases. What of the costs associated with keeping convicted murderers imprisoned for life? A study found that the average cost of housing and guarding each inmate in New York is $167,731 per year. 

Is it fair that survivors like Dr. William Petit subsidize the lives of the murderers of their loved ones? Only under the most elastic of morals.

There is of course the question of the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent—does it really save lives? According to studies, from 1977 through 1996 each execution resulted in 18 fewer murders; 1978 through 1997, each state execution deterred 14 murders on average; from 1994 through 2005, each execution in Texas was associated with a reduction of up to 2.5 murders per year. In 2009, researchers found that state laws allowing defendants in child murder cases to be eligible for capital punishment were associated with a 20 percent reduction in these crimes. Moreover, consensus in this regard is well documented. According to Justice Potter Stewart, who served as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1958 to 1981, “the death penalty undoubtedly is a significant deterrent.”

A Gallup poll found that in the U.S., 63 percent favor the death penalty for a convicted murderer, while the public tilts in favor of the death penalty over life imprisonment. Widespread support is old news and has remained generally consistent over several years.

In his blueprint for an ideal society, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that in a nation in which one individual heinously robs another of life, “he ceases to be one of its citizens: he even wages war against it. In such circumstances, the State and he cannot both be saved: one or the other must perish.” Thus by “killing the criminal, we destroy not so much a citizen as an enemy. The trial and judgements are proofs that he has broken the Social Contract, and so is no longer a member of the State.”

There is no substitute to death that can satisfy justice for the most heinous offenders, no cost-benefit analysis that can absolve the commuting of the basest felons.

You can follow Pepe directly on Twitter: @pepe_lew

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