The Price of a Head: Economics of the Death Penalty


Threads of conversation have slyly weaved through society, regarding capital punishment for criminals such as child molesters, rapists, murderers and those guilty of treason and piracy.  Economics is defined as “the study of how men choose to use scarce or limited products” (Samuelson, P and Scott, A 1966). This includes finances.  Administering the death penalty costs society much more time and money – is it worth it? Or would a better use of these scarce resources be to prevent and reduce crime, and rehabilitate criminals?

This post will look at the purposes of punishment, the use of the death penalty in Australia and overseas, and the impact of capital punishment on the economy to discuss whether or not it would be beneficial for Australia to welcome back the death penalty.

Purposes of Punishment

The two purposes of punishment this blog post will focus on are:

1) Retribution: giving the offender the sentence they deserve; a “you did something bad, now you’re gonna pay” kind of psychology. Capital punishment falls under this category.

2) Rehabilitation: this has a focus on ‘curing’ the offender with the hope of reintegrating them back into society. Australian sentencing guidelines have been criticised for putting too much weight on this in sentencing.

National Legislation

The last practice of capital punishment in Australia occurred in February 1967. The victim was Ronald Ryan, who had

Ronald Ryan:
Ronald Ryan (

been convicted of shooting a prison guard. However, the formal abolition of the death penalty didn’t happen until the Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973 (Cth) was passed six years later. More recently, in March 2010 this Act was amended to foreclose the ability of any state or territory in Australia reintroducing capital punishment into their legislation.


Between 2007 and 2012, China executed thousands of people, claiming first prize for the most executions in each consecutive year. Following behind is Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, with America taking fifth place.

America is the only western nation to make Amnesty International’s Top 10 Countries with the Most ExecutionsIn 2012, a total of 1722 people were sentenced to death worldwide. In the same year, there was five countries out of every six had abolished the death penalty.

Cost Efficiency of Criminal Justice

One reason people support capital punishment is that they believe tax-payers’ money should not be  absorbed into feeding, housing and providing psychological support to child molesters, murderers and the likes in prison. Is it not better and more efficient to execute them?

According to  Richard C. Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Centre in Washington DC, this is not the case.

“The trial costs for death cases were about 16 times greater than for non-death cases”

– (Kansas: Performance Audit Report: Costs Incurred for Death Penalty Cases: A K-GOAL Audit of the Department of Corrections)

The average cost of an execution (including trials) is US$2.4 million. In California, tax payers pay $114 million each year more than what they would if the maximum sentence was life. In Texas, a death penalty case costs almost three times as much as it would to imprison that same individual for life, in a single high-security cell (source).

This higher cost is due to the higher intensity of the legal proceedings required to decide a death penalty. They usually take a lot longer, which requires more time from the judge, lawyers, expert witnesses and the likes. The jury process also tends to be more complicated, and it is rare for no appeal to take place on a death penalty conviction. It usually takes years of legal proceedings before the actual execution occurs.

However, much of the cost associated with enforcing the death penalty is related to the ratio of people on death row (being imprisoned prior to execution) compared to those who are actually executed. With more people on death row and fewer being executed, the cost per execution has risen exponentially.

Economically Speaking, What Would Happen if Australia Readopted Capital Punishment?

Given that in countries such as America, which administer capital punishment, more taxation is used than would be if the penalty was abolished, it’s safe to say more of Australia’s tax money would be absorbed if we returned the death penalty to our legislation. The money has to come from somewhere, right? There are two ways this could come about:

  1. Higher rates of taxation per individual;
  2. Directing the Government’s

    current spending of taxation income away from education, healthcare and infrastructure and into the legal system. Note that this would decrease the number of public servants (teachers, policemen) and tradesmen needed to upkeep society’s infrastructure, so the unemployment rate would rise.

  So, in an economic sense, the death penalty isn’t the answer for Australia. In saying that, in a sense we as tax payers are still paying for the food, shelter and psychological services provided to the criminals who have murdered our families and friends, attacked our children and put our communities at risk.

But is it better to pay for them to be alive, or to pay for them to die? Does it matter?

 Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones)
Daenerys Targaryen

“A word, and Dany could have her head off . . . yet then what would she have? A head? If life was worthless, what was death?”

–  George Martin (Game of Thrones)

   I don’t think anyone will disagree with me that there are criminals out there who deserve capital punishment (please comment if you disagree!). There would be more men, women and children alive today had certain murderers been executed, who instead have either escaped prison or served their sentence and relapsed or committed the same offence again. The only huge justice issue with the death penalty is the risk of a wrongful conviction – and, of course, the ideal that carrying out the death penalty makes you no better than the convicted murderer.

  So, the big question is: should Australia readopt the death penalty? In my opinion, only for some crimes. I know you shouldn’t fight fire with fire, and it

isn’t economically smart, but I’d rather my tax money go to removing someone who killed or molested a child from the planet than paying for the food and care of that same man for the rest of his life. The death penalty should not be used regularly for the reasons outlined in this blog, but there are cases in which I believe it is justified spending of tax payers’ money.


* Samuelson, P and Scott, A (1966) Economics: An Introductory Analysis, McGraw Hill 2nd Edition, Canada

* See hyperlinks for further references

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Claire x

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