Study: The death penalty means higher taxes, fewer government services

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“I have no reason to believe government officials are deliberately hiding the way they pay for capital trials, but I do believe taxpayers in death penalty states are paying for these trials in ways they would not realize.”

And some of the ways they’re paying, according to West Virginia University Economics Professor Alexander Lundberg in his recently published paper, “On the Public Finance of Capital Punishment,” is by paying higher property taxes. “Counties meet the expense of trial by raising property tax rates and by reducing public safety expenditure. Property crime rises as a consequence of the latter,” he explained in an email.

While Lundberg says that “in some cases” county officials are open about raising taxes or reallocating funds from other areas, some “may not even be aware of the trade-off. They could simply look at a budget deficit and try to handle it by raising taxes and cutting spending in the most accessible targets.”

He says what was most surprising to him was the link between capital trials and property crime.

“Although we know police deter crime, I was surprised to find counties often cut spending on police to fund these trials.” He says Katherine Baicker, dean of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and Law Professor and Founding Director of the West Virginia Innocence Project Valena Beety both have found evidence of cuts to road and bridge spending as well.

Lundberg focused on Texas — which he says is “typical of how most death penalty states operate” — because of its “data availability and financial transparency.” The state “publishes the outcomes of all capital trials and requires counties to have independent auditors provide annual financial statements.” And because it holds more death penalty trials than most other states, it “offers an exceptional opportunity to study how counties respond to the fiscal shock of capital trials.”

While Lundberg doesn’t believe governments are trying to hide how they pay for capital trials, he does think, “Support for the death penalty would decrease if citizens knew its true cost to them personally. I think most people would be surprised to learn they pay higher taxes and get fewer government services, like policing, to maintain the death penalty.”

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