Monday, February 18, 2008

The Cost of Closure: How much did Texas spend to fail to execute John Paul Penry?

Doug Berman over at Sentencing Law & Policy has been wondering about the cost of the death penalty in Texas, estimating (perhaps inflatedly) that the John Paul Penry case - where the defendant received life without parole after nearly 30 years of litigating his case in the appellate courts, including three trials and two trips to the US Supreme Court - cost Texas $1 billion when it was all said and done. The professor wonders:
how many underfunded local police forces or local schools or crime victim funds or roads construction crews could have been more productive than was the criminal justice system with this billion dollars wasted by Texas prosecutors trying to have the state kill Johnny Paul Penry for his admitted crime[?]

The particular irony in the Penry case is that prosecutors' pursuit of the death penalty lead to accomplishments, but mostly by those favoring death penalty abolition. The time and money spent on the Penry case surely diverted some Texas prosecutors from spending time and money pursuing other capital cases. Moreover, the two Supreme Court Penry decision were critical catalysts for the Court's ultimate ruling in 2002 that the Eighth Amendment demands a categorical ban on the execution of all persons who suffer from mental retardation. So, to be accurate, the billion dollars invested by Texas prosecutors in the Penry case did have some positive pay-off — but really only for those who oppose capital punishment.

Quite a few commenters thought the $1 billion estimate was way too high (don't people become lawyers so they won't have to do math?), but Berman replied that "Given that NJ spent $250,000,000 on its death penalty without even having a single DP case go deep into the federal habeas process, I do not think the ONE BILLION price tag for the Penry case is completely out of whack as an educated guess."

Karl Keys thought the number might be closer to $50 million - a large sum to be sure, but 1/20 of Professor Berman's estimate. Calculated in current day dollars (i.e, taking into account inflation over 30 years), the total might exceed double that amount, since much of the cost was borne in the 1980s and '90s. Karl suggested, correctly:
I think your math is bad due to a faulty assumption about per unit costs. The per unit cost of the first execution is high but dramatically drops once you get out to 400+ execution range that Texas now occupies.
That's a good point, though a sad commentary. Last year more than 60% of all executions carried out in America took place in Texas. At a certain point you create an economy of scale, and soon thereafter, a monstrosity.


Anonymous said...

Auschwitz had terrific economies of scale if what you're after is low "per unit cost."

Ron in Houston said...

In my wholly unscientific mind, I find $1 billion a bit hard to swallow.

Whatever was spent was way too much.

Anonymous said...

Auschwitz had terrific economies of scale if what you're after is low "per unit cost."

Especially with IBM and the Bushes helping you crunch the numbers.

(just seeing where that one takes us)

However, I too think the billion dollars tag is a bit high. Even considering the one-time start up expense at government spending rates.

Anonymous said...

How much did it cost for his victim.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"How much did it cost for his victim."

Unfortunately, the exact same, no matter what is Penry's punishment.

Anonymous said...

The cost to Pamela Carpenter was incalculable.

Anonymous said...

It doesnt have to be that way. Get rid of the money hungry lawyers and the bleeding heart liberals and put them to sleep 2 weeks after the trial. That would save society millions of dollars and force hundreds of lawyers to get real jobs.

Anonymous said...

Have any lawyers grown rich doing post-conviction death penalty work? I doubt it.

I also dare say that death-penalty lawyers work every bit as hard, if not much harder, than many people with "real jobs."

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"money hungry lawyers and bleeding heart liberals"

In Texas death penalty cases? You're kidding, right? Virtually all of this guy's legal talent worked pro bono, and his cases were decided by supermajorities at SCOTUS.

And when will this fantasy be enacted that we execute two weeks after trial? It's fascinating to me how everybody hates lawyers until the day they need one. Dozens of innocent people have been exonerated from death row nationwide by DNA and other evidence - clearly you prefer all those innocent people had been killed already, right?

Finally, while the cost to Pamela Carpenter is indeed "incalculable," that cost has not increased nor diminished an iota because of Penry's final punishment. All that was accomplished by the quest for vengeance beyond life in prison, as Berman pointed out, were new precedents restricting the death penalty nationwide. But the family was put through the ringer for decades, and the taxpayers bore a significant cost to get to a final result that Penry would have accepted in 1980.

Anonymous said...

Government ineptitude is amazing. Sometimes you've just got to know when to fold em. Where was the risk/reward examination of pursuing this case? The only thing considered had to be the ego of the Attorney Generals office.

They could have saved all that money for litigation they are going to face regarding TYC and the DOJ.

Anonymous said...

The Texas AG has no role in the decisions on these cases, it is the local DA's show.

Learn some basics before popping your mouth off, Anon at 9:15!

wolf said...

The tremendous costs involved, not just in execution, but incarceration in general, are rarely brought to the attention of the public. Even though the death penalty has not reduced the murder rate, politicians still promote the myth that it is necessary and effective. Who really pays?
If TDCJ were a private business, it would be subject to the oversight of a board of directoprs who would demand to see profits for the investors. Since no one is held accountable for the effectiveness of the "justice" system, huge amounts of taxpayer money is wasted annually. Surely it is time to re-invent the system and fashion it in a way that maximizes effectiveness and minimizes cost.