3. The Death Penalty is More Expensive than Life Without Parole
While common sense might suggest otherwise, the truth is that seeking the death penalty costs states millions of dollars more than life in prison without parole. How can that be?
- Most costs related to death penalty cases are incurred at the trial phase because these cases are more complicated and more time-consuming. Death penalty trials are actually two full trials: one for determining innocence or guilt and another trial for sentencing.
- The overwhelming majority of death penalty defendants cannot afford a private attorney and the state is obligated to provide two defense attorneys per defendant for both of these trial phases.
- The jury selection process takes about five times longer in a death penalty case, and the jury is more likely to be sequestered.
- Death penalty costs are accrued upfront, with the majority of expenses occurring during the initial trial. Meanwhile, the cost of life in prison is spread out over many decades. To any state, a million dollars spent today is a lot more costly than an equivalent amount paid gradually over 40 years.
Some might argue that we simply need to "speed up the process" in order to eliminate costs, but the fact is that the Supreme Court requires that death-penalty states have these lengthy and time-consuming procedures. Ironically, even though this process was designed as a means for guarding against innocent people being executed by mistake, it has failed to do so.
All of these factors mean that the death penalty is an expensive public policy choice that poor states like Arkansas have difficulty maintaining.
Although Arkansas has not yet studied the costs associated with the death penalty, other states have found capital punishment to be a costly government program that diverts millions of dollars from programs and agencies that protect the public and save lives. The most rigorous cost study in the country found that a single death sentence in Maryland costs almost $2 million more than a similar non-death penalty case. Of the 162 capital cases, Maryland found 106 cases in which a death sentence was sought but not handed down. Those cases cost the state an additional $71 million compared to the cost non-death penalty cases. Those costs were incurred simply to seek the death penalty where the ultimate outcome was a life or long-term prison sentence.
And Maryland is not alone: Numerous states have done studies showing that the death penalty can be up to six times more expensive than sentences of life without parole.
The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice has reported that the “additional cost of confining an inmate to death row, as compared to the maximum security prisons where those sentenced to life without possibility of parole ordinarily serve their sentences, is $90,000 per year per inmate. With California’s current death row population of 670, that accounts for $63.3 million annually.”
Using conservative rough projections, the Commission estimated the annual costs of the state’s death penalty system to be $137 million per year.
The cost of a system that imposes a maximum penalty of lifetime incarceration instead of the death penalty would be $11.5 million per year.
In a report to the Washington State Bar Association regarding cost, it was estimated that death penalty cases cost between $517,000 and $540,000 during the initial trial than the same case as an aggravated murder without the death penalty. On appeal, the cost of appellate defense averages $100,000 more in death penalty cases than in non-death penalty murder cases.
A New Jersey study concluded that the state's death penalty had cost taxpayers $253 million since 1983, well beyond the costs that would have been incurred had the state utilized a sentence of life without parole. "From a strictly financial perspective, it is hard to reach a conclusion other than this: New Jersey taxpayers over the last 23 years have paid more than a quarter billion dollars on a capital punishment system that has executed no one," the report concluded. James Abbot, a police chief in New Jersey, has stated "Give a law enforcement professional like me that $250 million, and I’ll show you how to reduce crime. The death penalty isn’t anywhere on my list.”
A report released by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury recommended changes to the state's costly death penalty and called into question its effectiveness in preventing crime. While acknowledging that the office lacked sufficient data to accurately account for the total costs of capital trials, the report concluded that capital murder trials are longer and more expensive at every stage compared to other murder trials. In fact, the available data indicated that capital trials cost taxpayers almost 50% more than murder cases in which prosecutors seek life without parole.
In its review of death penalty expenses, Kansas concluded that capital cases are 70% more expensive than comparable non-death penalty cases. The study also found that the investigation costs for death-sentence cases were about 3 times greater than for non-death cases. The trial costs for death cases were about 16 times greater than for non-death cases. The appeal costs for death cases were 21 times greater.
According to the Indiana Criminal Law Study Commission, the death penalty in Indiana costs 38% more than the total cost of life without parole sentences.
In a law review article published in 2009, a Duke University professor calculated that North Carolina would save approximately $11 million annually if it dropped the death penalty. This was a conservative estimate and did not include resources that would have been freed up in the Office of the Appellate Defender and the North Carolina Supreme Court, the extra time spent by prosecutors in capital cases, and the costs to taxpayers for federal appeals.
According to estimates by the Palm Beach Post, Florida would save $51 million each year by punishing all first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole.
Money spent on the death penalty takes away resources from other state needs, especially the needs of the victims of crime. A state must always choose where to put its limited resources. and the extra money spent on the death penalty could be spent on other means of achieving justice and making the community safer, such as compensation for victims, expanded services for murder victim family members, more police on the streets or projects to reduce unemployment.