Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Role of Cost in Anti-Death-Penalty Rhetoric

Elsewhere, we discussed the recent moratoria on executions, as well as ALI's retraction of support for the death penalty and its abolition in New Mexico. These trends are undoubtedly linked to the financial crisis. Today's question--and maybe our readers have some thoughts on this--is whether anti-death-penalty activists are making the most of the scarcity-related genre of arguments against the death penalty. There seems to be some evidence that they are.

Broadly speaking, we can classify anti-death-penalty arguments into three groups:

  1. Value concerns: this is a broad family of arguments, which include not only the broad issue of the appropriateness of the state's killing of its own citizens, but also doubts about its deterrent effect, as well as concerns about the inequities associated with the death penalty (such as the overrepresentation of minorities);
  2. Innocence concerns: featuring cases of wrongful convictions and executions, the death penalty's irreversibility plays an important part.
  3. Cost concerns.

There's hardly any doubt that cost-related concerns figure prominently in the discourse nowadays. Mike Farrell's post this weekend on The Huffington Post places particular emphasis on the cost argument. The Death Penalty Information Center also seems to highlight this argument in their publications. What I don't know, and would very much like to find out, is whether this is a new phenomenon, generated by the financial crisis, or whether previous installments of the death penalty debate also featured cost-related arguments. My (unproven) hypothesis is that there would be evidence of all three arguments throughout the debate, but that the focus of the debate has shifted from value concerns (which were always discussed) to innocence concerns (whose importance probably increased with the introduction of DNA testing) to cost concerns. I guess the way to figure this out is to go back to activist literature from before the 1970s and spend some time "counting" reasons in articles. Your thoughts on this, as well as on the effectiveness of cost-related arguments in this debate, are welcome.


Michael Connelly said...

The danger with the cost concern, beyond becoming irrelevant again if/when budgets improve, is that there are two ways to address it--one, by the way anti- folks want or, two, by reducing appeals. The anti- folks run a real risk of "be careful what you wish for" with the cost argument.

Hadar Aviram said...

Indeed; Tom Harman's op-ed being a case in point: