Saturday, October 24, 2009

Death and the Dollar Sign - Part II (The Pinto)

I suspect that like so many of the hotly contested social issues (abortion, school prayer, same sex marriage, etc.) the death penalty evokes strong feelings among a tiny portion of the population.

A few people are enthusiastic supporters, convinced that we don't kill nearly enough people. Among them are some who feel that government killing is so important that it's the sole basis on which they vote. A few others are passionate abolitionists, deeply committed to the position that the government ought never kill. Among them, too, are a smattering of single-issue voters. Most people fall somewhere in the fuzzy middle. They don't think about the death penalty much. If pressed, they'd say we should probably have it on the books. But they don't much care if it never gets used. It's just not on their radar.

Mark Draughn, one of WindyPundit, describes himself as comfortably within that broad majority. But the recent DPIC study of costs may be changing his mind. His argument is interesting because it is both compelling and deeply disturbing.

Let's start with compelling. He begins with the numbers.
[W]hen you ignore the hyperbole and fake(ish) survey, the report makes an interesting economic case, starting with the estimated cost of a death sentence:

The high costs to the state per execution reflect the following reality: For a single death penalty trial, the state may pay $1 million more than for a non-death penalty trial. But only one in every three capital trials may result in a death sentence, so the true cost of that death sentence is $3 million. Further down the road, only one in ten of the death sentences handed down may result in an execution. Hence, the cost to the state to reach that one execution is $30 million.

That's a lot to pay to execute somebody, and it may be worse than that:

In 2008, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice released an exhaustive report on the state's capital punishment system... The report found that the state was spending $137 million per year on the death penalty... Since the number of executions in California has averaged less than one every two years since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, the cost for each execution is over $250 million.

Then he asks the question the numbers compel:
So is an execution worth $30 million? Or $250 million?
And then he answers it by measuring the cash value of saved lives (he assumes some net deterrent effect) against the cost. I won't repeat the calculations here. They're interesting and worth some thought. I encourage you to go and read them yourself. But here's the bottom line:
Understand that I'm not saying we shouldn't spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to save lives. What I'm saying is that resources are scarce (economic crisis or not), so if we decide to spend money saving lives, we should be careful to spend it in a way that will save the most lives possible, which probably isn't on executions.
It's an actuary's test. It's the calculation of the guys who signed off on the memo suggesting that the benefits in lives saved were outweighed by the costs of installing an $11 part in a Ford Pinto to prevent it exploding into flames on a rear impact. It's the sort of test that economic analysis says we do and maybe should do. And as he works it out, it's surely right.

But it's also deeply disturbing - and for the same reason the Pinto memo was disturbing. Nobody except accountants and actuaries (and corporate executives trying to avoid spending a few bucks) is particularly happy about doing cost/benefit analyses of human life. Mark knows that:
It's easy to say that human life is priceless, but as economists have shown, that's not how we behave.
And that's fair enough, but it doesn't make the point any less disturbing.

The argument (I'm not saying it's right; I'm just saying it's the argument) for the death penalty as deterrent, after all, isn't that there aren't any other things we can do that will save more lives. It's that there are lives we're throwing away because we don't kill more. And even if there's no net deterrent effect (say, there are as many additional killings from the brutalization effect as there are saved lives from the deterrent effect) from the death penalty, that's probably true.

But you know, if it's wrong to kill people, it's wrong to do it. And if it's the right thing to do, then damn the cost. Of course, that's the view of one of those pure abolitionists who simply can't countenance any state killing. Ever. I don't like the cost/benefit analysis because it's ugly and offensive.

But if it convinces a few people, I can live with that. Happily.

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