Wasteful and inefficient
The alarming cost of the death penalty
Many people believe that the death penalty is more cost-effective than housing and feeding a prisoner for life. But the death penalty’s complexity, length, and finality drive costs through the roof, making it much more expensive. In reality, capital punishment is an inefficient, bloated program that has bogged down law enforcement, delayed justice for victims’ families, and devoured millions of crime-fighting dollars that could save lives and protect the public.
How much does the death penalty cost?
- The most rigorous cost study in the country found that a single death sentence in Maryland costs almost $2 million more than a comparable non-death penalty case. Maryland spent $186 million extra to carry out just five executions.1
- More than a dozen states have found that death penalty cases are up to 10 times more expensive than comparable non-death penalty cases. In California, a 2011 study showed that death penalty cases are 20 times more expensive. That state has spent over $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978.2
- The death penalty costs more than just dollars. In fact, the majority of the death penalty's costs never appear as line items in any budget. Instead they are buried in thicket of legal proceedings and hours spent by judges, clerks, prosecutors, and other law enforcement agencies. In the time it takes to pursue one capital case, law enforcement could investigate, prosecute, solve, and prevent scores of other crimes.
Why does it cost so much?
- The death penalty process is more complicated because a life is on the line. Capital cases involve more lawyers, more witnesses, more experts, a longer jury selection process, more pre-trial motions, an entirely separate trial for sentencing, and countless other expenses – racking up exorbitant costs even before a single appeal is filed.
- Most death penalty trials are found to be significantly flawed and must be re-done, sometimes more than once, adding to the high cost.
- In most cases where the death penalty is sought, it is never imposed. And even when it is imposed, it is rarely carried out. Yet taxpayers are saddled with the death penalty’s extra costs even in cases where the defendant is not sentenced to death.
Who pays for the death penalty?
- One key study found that the costs of the death penalty are borne primarily by increasing taxes and cutting services like police and highway funding, with county budgets bearing the brunt of the burden.3
- The burden is even higher on smaller counties. Jasper County, Texas, raised property taxes by nearly 7% just to pay for a single death penalty case.4 Two capital cases forced Jefferson County, Florida, to freeze employee raises and slash the library budget.5
- The death penalty diverts resources that could be used to help homicide survivors heal — including grief and trauma counseling, scholarships for orphaned children, professional leave to attend court proceedings, and financial support.
- Police chiefs nationwide rate the death penalty as one of the most inefficient uses of taxpayer dollars. Surveys show that law enforcement would prefer adding police or reducing drug abuse.6
Can we make the system cheaper?
- Many of the extra costs are legally mandated to reduce the risk of executing an innocent person. And even these safeguards are not enough. At least 147 people have been exonerated from death row after waiting years for the truth to come out. Streamlining the process would virtually guarantee the execution of an innocent person.
- Even states with the fewest protections and a faster process face exorbitant death penalty costs. In Texas, for example, the death penalty still costs an average of three times more than 40 years in prison at maximum security.7
We’ve learned a lot about the death penalty in the last 30 years. It is a bloated and expensive system that has bogged down law enforcement, delayed justice for victims’ families, and squandered millions of crime-fighting dollars. Can we afford the price?
- 1. John Roman et al, "The Cost of the Death Penalty in Maryland", Urban Institute, 2008.
- 2. Judge Arthur L. Alarcon & Paula M. Mitchell, "Executing the Will of the Voters?:
A roadmap to mend or end the California legislature's multi-billion dollar death penalty debacle", Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, Volume 44:S41 Special Issue (2011).
- 3. Katherine Baicker, "The Budgetary Repercussions Of Capital Convictions," Dartmouth College and the National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2002.
- 4. "Prosecuting Death-Penalty Cases Puts Huge Strain On Local Government Finances," Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2002.
- 5. Jeff Scullin , "Death Penalty: Is Price Of Justice Too High? States wonder if the extreme punishment is worth the cost," The Ledger (Florida), December 14, 2003.
- 6. "Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis,2009. Death Penalty Information Center. and "On the Front Line: Law Enforcement Views on the Death Penalty," Death Penalty Information Center, 1995.
- 7. "Executions Cost Texas Millions," Dallas Morning News, March 8, 1992
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