COSTS: In Indiana, the Death Penalty is Very Expensive with Little or No Return

Seeking the death penalty in Indiana is very expensive, even though most cases in which the death penalty is sought do not end in an execution. According to the Indiana Public Defender Council, only 16% percent of death penalty cases in the state filed between 1990 and 2009 (30 out of 188) ended with a death sentence, and even fewer resulted in an execution. In Vanderburgh County, where taxpayers have spent $800,000 in the last two decades defending capital cases, only one of the last five death penalty trials has resulted in an execution. Parke County had to raise its taxes to pay for the prosecution of a death penalty case, which ultimately ended with a guilty plea and a life-without-parole sentence. Vanderburgh County Councilman Tom Shetler acknowledged the current system can be burdensome, “There is no doubt financially it is a serious hardship on the taxpayers,” Shetler said. According to a fiscal impact report presented by the Indiana Legislative Services agency, the average cost of a death penalty trial and direct appeal was more than $450,000—over 10 times the cost of a life-without-parole trial, which averaged $42,658. The same report also found that 19 of the 26 death penalty cases between 2000 and 2007 ended in plea agreements for sentences of life without parole.

Stephen Owens, Vanderburgh County’s chief public defender, noted, “Financially strapped counties can’t afford it. In my personal opinion, you cannot justify it from a financial standpoint. We have alternatives. We have life without parole ….” Paula Sites of the Indiana Public Defender Council compared the death penalty with life without parole: “If you look at this from a public policy perspective, from a taxpayer’s perspective, in either case the person is going to die in prison. The only question is who picks the date.”

(M. Wilson, “Seeking death penalty in Indiana is expensive, often unsuccessful,” Courier Press, August 6, 2011). See Costs.