Politics and Vengeance—How the Death Penalty Costs Us

Social Justice Policy Brief #140 | By: Abigail Hunt | September 12, 2022

Header photo taken from: Fort Worth Criminal Attorneys

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The Death Penalty Declines as Global Recorded Executions Reach Lowest Level in a Decade Despite Prevalence in U.S., Middle East, Most of Asia and Parts of Africa.

Photo taken from: Chip Time / Somodevilla / Getty Images

Twenty-seven states have the death penalty, and twenty-four of those states still execute prisoners. The U.S. military and government both enforce capital punishment. According to the Nevada State Legislature website, a 2008 study by the Urban Institute showed Maryland’s average cost for a death penalty case was $3 million. In Texas, a capital trial costs $2.3 million, more than three times what it would cost to keep the convicted imprisoned in a maximum-security unit for 40 years.

Why do states pursue execution when the process is so cost-prohibitive? The argument made for capital punishment is an emotional one – a district attorney appeals to a juror’s individual sense of outrage. Fiscally, it does not make sense – the death penalty is more expensive. Politically though, that’s another story. District attorneys are elected officials in many states. Like abortion and gay marriage, the death penalty is a potentially divisive hot-button topic.

In 1989, by the time Florida executed infamous serial killer Ted Bundy, his case had cost taxpayers approximately $5 million. In July and August 2020, the first five executions the Trump administration ordered to be carried out cost nearly $5 million – almost $1 million per prisoner executed. Study after study shows the death penalty to be far more expensive than life imprisonment – Indiana, North Carolina, Texas, California, Florida – the cost of a capital trial and the subsequent required appeals process outstrips the costs of any other criminal proceeding by a long shot.

Capital punishment is outlawed in more than 70 percent on the globe. The most recent nations to outlaw the death penalty are Kazakhstan (2021) and Papua New Guinea (2022). Several nations have suspended executions even though capital punishment technically remains legal. 

There are only 55 countries that maintain a barrier-less legal avenue to state execution. China holds the top spot, executing thousands of its citizens annually, though, according to World Population Review (WPR), the real numbers may be higher. WPR reports that China, North Korea, Vietnam, Syria, and Afghanistan withhold information about death penalty use in their countries – for this reason and others, it is not possible to get an accurate estimate of cost from those nations.

The death penalty is not a crime deterrent, but it seems the lack of it may be – one international study found that 10 out of 11 countries that abolished the death penalty saw a decrease in murder rate in the decade after its abolition. According to the FBI’s Unified Crime Reports for the past three decades (1989-2019), the murder rate in death penalty states is consistently and sometimes significantly higher than in states without the death penalty.

There appears to be a relationship between legal capital punishment and a higher rate of violent crime. There are many who take part in putting a person to death, whether they be jury, judge, board member, governor, or executioner. 


Infographic taken from: Community Impact

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Those sentenced to die are disproportionaterly people of color (POC) and poor. Politicians use capital punishment as a ploy to gain votes. It  is a  waste of state and federal resources to prosecute death penalty cases due to the costs of the courts; that money could be better spent on methods of reformative justice that lower crime rates and reduce costs, something that most, regardless of borders or ethnicity, would agree are positive things.

 Performed in the sanitized theatre of a prison  chamber, executions today are just as grotesque as those of days past, when public hangings were town entertainment. 

On a personal and moral level, we must ask ourselves – does creating more violence and more murderers solve our problem of killing one another? 

Medieval torture devices are no longer legal; likewise, the death penalty should fall by the wayside. It is madness to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. As Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” The death penalty is not justice, it is vengeance, and a human rights violation. Law exists to protect our rights, not to violate them. Vengeance has no place in law.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

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International Commission Against the Death Penalty believes the death penalty is incompatible with human rights and human dignity and works to raise awareness in the fight to end capital punishment. https://icomdp.org/


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Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has advocated for justice from integral problems in our society, including racism, gender oppression, systems that lead to socioeconomic inequalities, and excessive government. https://ccrjustice.org/


Founded in 1990, the Death Penalty Information Center is a national non-profit based in the U.S. that provides reports and analysis on capital punishment, producing informative annual data. https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/

Learn More

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 


Murder Rate of Death Penalty States Compared to Non-Death Penalty States. Death Penalty Info Center. Accessed September 12, 2022. https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/facts-and-research/murder-rates/murder-rate-of-death-penalty-states-compared-to-non-death-penalty-states

Study: International Data Shows Declining Murder Rates After Abolition of Death Penalty. Death Penalty Info Center. January 3, 2019. Accessed September 12, 2022.


Records Disclose Taxpayers Picked Up a Nearly Million Dollar Price Tag for Each Federal Execution. Death Penalty Info Center. February 3, 2021. Accessed September 12, 2022. https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/records-disclose-taxpayers-picked-up-a-nearly-million-dollar-price-tag-for-each-federal-execution

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Countries with the Death Penalty 2022. World Population Review. Accessed September 12, 2022. https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/countries-with-death-penalty

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Nevada Legislature, Nevada State Home Page. Accessed September 12, 2022.


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Capital Punishment, The Costs Of Capital Punishment. Law Library – American Law and Legal Information. Accessed September 12, 2022.


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