Two state legislatures on the opposite sides of the country have recently gone in opposite directions when it comes to the death penalty.
In Washington, the state officially outlawed capital punishment after a years-long moratorium, first issued by the governor and later by the state supreme court.
In Florida, the state made it so juries only need to vote 8-4 in favor of the death penalty, instead of the previously required unanimous consent.
The debate over capital punishment resurfaces annually as state legislatures grapple with one of the most morally controversial topics governments face. Sometimes, however, the debate turns from the moral to the economic.
Intuitively, it may seem as though executing someone would be less expensive to the state than a sentence of life in prison, which could require keeping them alive behind bars for decades. But opponents of the death penalty often claim in fact, the reverse is true. So what does the data show?
Is the death penalty less expensive to the state than life imprisonment?
No, research universally shows the death penalty costs states many times more than sentences of life in prison.
WHAT WE FOUND
There have been more than 9,700 death sentences issued in the United States in the past 50 years, according to the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center. Of those, 1,568 have resulted in executions.
Only 16 of those executions were carried out by the federal government; the rest were by individual states.
Over the last few decades numerous agencies and academic researchers have looked into the question of cost. Every study and report identified by VERIFY came to the conclusion: the death penalty costs more for the government than life sentences.
A report commissioned by the Judicial Conference of the United States, a body that oversees federal courts, found that costs start to balloon as soon as federal prosecutors decide to even pursue the death penalty.
“The median cost of a case in which the Attorney General authorized seeking the death penalty was nearly eight times greater than the cost of a case that was eligible for capital prosecution but in which the death penalty was not authorized,” the report said.
One of the most comprehensive studies of death penalty costs was conducted in North Carolina. Duke University Professor Philip Cook analyzed 11 executions that took place in the state from 2005 to 2006, and estimated the state would have saved a total of $21,642,414 if the death penalty had not been on the table.
That means North Carolina was spending nearly $2 million more per person to execute them instead of imprisoning them for life.
So how do the costs get so staggering? It can be broken down into three areas: trial, imprisonment, and appeals.
Similar to the findings of the Judicial Conference, Cook’s study found that the government’s costs start to soar the moment they put the death penalty on the table.
Death-penalty defendants are afforded extra constitutional protections, and their trials are inherently longer and more complicated due to the possibility of execution and a desire of those involved to get it right.
Defendants usually receive two attorneys instead of just one, and they’re almost always public defenders. Numerous expert witnesses have to be called, and compensated, such as scientists who specialize in DNA.
Cook estimates the attorney and expert fees for a capital murder trial averaged $116,400 at the time of his study. That’s nearly ten times more than for noncapital murder, which averaged $18,600 in fees.
The jury selection process is also more expensive. Jurors have to be specially selected to be prepared to handle a capital case and be comfortable with the idea of issuing a death sentence. And since the trial is longer, the state issues more juror pay in capital trials than noncapital – Cook estimated more than $20,000 per case.
These costs are incurred regardless of whether the defendant is convicted, or executed.
“Most cases in which the death penalty is sought don't result in an execution,” said Richard Dieter, the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “And when I say most, I mean overwhelmingly.”
Meanwhile, DPIC estimates capital trials “can last more than four times longer than non-capital trials,” using courthouse resources in the process, often from small counties.
Intuitively, it may seem as though the state would likely save money via the death penalty since, by executing someone, they do not have to pay to keep them alive in prison. But that theory only works if executions are occurring soon after sentences are issued.
“If we tried them and took them out and strung up like in an 1870s cow town, then yeah, that would be a money saver,” said Cook in an interview with VERIFY. “But the courts, so far, will not allow that to happen. And nobody really wants it to happen.”
Instead, convicts are put on death row. Cook’s study estimates death row security costs roughly as much per year as the maximum security imprisonment typically received by inmates with life sentences – although those life-sentence inmates are sometimes moved to medium security facilities later in their tenures, which is less costly.
The Death Policy Information Center estimates that on average, inmates who received a death sentence spend nearly 19 years on death row.
“What's happened is that the time between sentencing and execution has gotten so long, it's like a life sentence anyhow,” said Dieter.
One paper in California found inmates on death row were regularly dying naturally before they could be executed.
“Over the last thirty-four years, more than eighty death-row inmates have died in prison before the state carried out their death sentences – essentially a term of life imprisonment without parole – while only thirteen have been executed,” the authors wrote in 2012. “Thus, our current death-penalty scheme essentially already is [a life-without-parole] scheme, but – according to our calculations – it costs taxpayers roughly an additional $200 million per year to maintain the illusion that California has a functioning death penalty.”
Another California report found that in that state, death row security actually costs more than life sentence security.
“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,” the paper read.
One reason why death row stays typically last so long is another reason why pursuing the death penalty is so expensive: the appeals process.
Inmates who receive a death sentence tend to have access to tiers of appeals not available to other inmates, since courts are wary of executing the wrong person.
State supreme courts may agree to hear the case, a rarity for many criminal appeals. Even rarer, the Supreme Court of the United States may take the case, a near-impossibility for those not on death row.
“When courts get these things, they slow down a little bit and say: this is a death penalty case, I'm gonna allow this hearing, I'm gonna have a second hearing, I want to hear this witness who recanted,” said Dieter.
As with the initial trial, the lawyers arguing these appeals are often paid for by the state.
In the relatively rare case that the state goes through with the execution – because the sentence isn’t commuted, revised, or the inmate doesn’t die in prison – that costs money, too.
Cook’s study estimated North Carolina spent $16,369 per execution.
On the federal level, documents obtained by the ACLU suggest the government could be spending nearly $1 million per execution. Five executions in 2020 cost $4.7 million, with high costs coming from training, travel, staffing, supplies, and locking down the facility.
In 2020, the federal government spent $39,158 per inmate, meaning an average federal execution cost the same as about 24 years in federal prison.