Last month, the issue of capital punishment re-emerged in national headlines when Illinois became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty. In recent years much of the focus on death penalty has centered around the debate over whether or not our form of execution, lethal injection, falls under cruel and unusual punishment.

But what has been lost in that discussion is the fact that a far more compelling case can be made not for why states should change their method of capital punishment, but for why it makes sense to eliminate the death penalty completely.

Illinois is just the latest in a recent trend of states that have ditched capital punishment, as three states have now banned the death penalty in the last five years. Additionally, legislation to eliminate capital punishment is on the table in 11 other states: Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

OK, I laughed when I read about that last one — that bill is probably as dead as the inmates on Texas’s death row themselves. But in more than a few of those states the possibility of abolishing the death penalty is a real one.

To know why, one needs to look at the numbers. During a period in which an overwhelming majority of states are facing budget deficits, the exorbitant costs of capital punishment have caused many legislatures and governors to now see it a wasteful use of state funds.

Across the country, states are spending significantly more money on death penalty cases than cases in which prosecutors seek life imprisonment. A large portion of the extra cost of a capital case comes as a result of the lengthy appeal process.

For example, Maryland spends $3 million on every trial that ends in the death penalty while spending only $1.1 million on cases which the prosecution seeks life imprisonment. Maryland is not the only state with these enormous disparities. In Texas — the state that has executed the most convicts in the last 30 years — capital cases cost three times as much as cases in which prosecutors seek a life sentence.

The extra amount spent on prosecuting and defending capital cases is not offset by the costs associated with life imprisonment. Most people who are sentenced to death are not executed until a decade after their final appeal and cost money to imprison while they wait. In fact, it costs more to house a death row inmate than a maximum-security inmate who is sentenced to life without parole. In California this difference can be as much as $90,000 annually per convict, or $63.3 million a year for all of the state’s 670 (and counting) death row inmates.

Some convicts on death row never even reach their execution, as they die sooner of other causes such as disease, illness or suicide. Taxpayers are paying extra funds to send criminals to death row, only to have some of these convicts die before the government has the opportunity to execute them.

This build-up of inmates on death row has taken a toll in many states. Since 1978, Maryland has spent over $186 million on death penalty cases but has executed only five people. The wasteful spending does not stop there. In that same time frame, the state has spent $71 million on capital cases that did not end in a death sentence.

States such as Colorado are already considering more beneficial ways of using the extra funds that would be available if the death penalty were abolished. State legislators propose to use the savings to build a police unit that will investigate the state’s unsolved murders.

Even with such a high cost, some will argue that capital punishment is worth the price if it is successful in preventing violent crime. Unfortunately, there is no significant evidence that proves the death penalty acts as an effective deterrent.

Since 2003, murder rates have been more than 40 percent higher in states with the death penalty. While there are many factors contributing to this difference, it is worth pointing out that this gap has been on a dramatic upswing since 1990.

Perhaps this is evidence that the states without capital punishment are finding more effective ways of discouraging violent crime. On the other hand, maybe it means that there really is no relationship between the two at all, because murderers just aren’t the type of people who tend to consider the consequences of their actions beforehand.

What might be the most persuasive argument against the death penalty, however, is that it can and has led to the execution of innocent people.

Since 1973, a total of 138 people on death row have been exonerated of the murders they were convicted of thanks to advances in technology and DNA evidence. We’ll never know how many more on death row could have fallen into that category if they weren’t executed first, because such cases are almost never reinvestigated.

But a recent case from Texas is proof that the execution of the innocent does happen. In Texas, Cameron Willingham was executed on death row in 2004 for an alleged arson that killed his three daughters, but a careful review by multiple experts has determined that his conviction was based on faulty scientific evidence.

Another example is a Florida man named Jesse Tafero who was executed in 1990 because he was convicted on what were proven to be false witness statements. In both cases there was sufficient reason to at the very least hold off on their execution until their new evidence was reviewed in depth, but such review was not granted through the appeals process.

Who knows how many others out there have been put to death based on incorrect evidence and, given the failures of the appeals system, how many more wrongful executions could occur in the future.

As it turns out, the next one might be right here in Georgia, where death row inmate Troy Davis continues to be denied a chance to introduce new evidence to his case despite a public outcry that has been joined by leaders such as former President Jimmy Carter, former Republican U.S. Representative Bob Barr and even Pope Benedict XVI.

There’s only one major argument left for those who support capital punishment that I have yet to address: that it provides closure to the families of murder victims and the general community.

I don’t deny that there is merit to that claim. As a resident of the Washington D.C. area during the 2002 sniper attacks, I’ll never forget the terror and panic caused by John Allen Muhammad during those three weeks. I’d be lying if I said I did not get any satisfaction out of his execution, which took place a year and a half ago.

And obviously, my sentiments don’t even begin to compare to how the actual families of a murder victim must feel; it’s natural for them to want some kind of retribution.

But as a society, we have to reevaluate what justice really is. We can kill 100 John Allen Muhammads, but is that really beneficial or morally correct if by doing that we also kill even one Willingham or Tafero?

The answer to that is no; the act of killing an innocent person would be, as former Supreme Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once put it, a “constitutionally intolerable” act. Combine that with the fact that it’s ineffective in preventing crime and comes with astronomical costs, and capital punishment looks to be just another one of many flaws of an outdated, inefficient criminal justice system.