Study Finds Louisiana Spends An Extra $15 Million Per Year on Death Penalty

A new study of Louisiana’s death penalty reports that the state’s capital punishment system costs taxpayers at least $15.6 million a year more than a system with life without parole as the maximum sentence. The study by retired New Orleans district Chief Judge Calvin Johnson (pictured, left) and Loyola Law Professor William Quigley (pictured, right), released on May 2, 2019, found that Louisiana has spent more than $200 million on its death-penalty system in the last 15 years, resulting in a single execution of a prisoner who gave up his appeals. The researchers projected that, for an offense committed after August 1, 2019, it would cost taxpayers more than a quarter billion dollars to keep in place its capital punishment system from the time of arrest to the time of an eventual execution.

For their study, Johnson and Quigley examined data compiled by the Louisiana Department of Corrections, the Louisiana Public Defender Board, and the Louisiana Legislative Fiscal Office to arrive at what the authors characterize as “a conservative estimate” of the system’s costs. “The actual costs may be significantly higher, as the costs do not include the prosecution or court costs spent on capital cases that ultimately did not go to trial as a capital case, or the costs of Louisiana Supreme Court review,” they said. Quigley summarized the study’s findings, saying, “Louisiana has spent over $200 million in the past 15 years, to operate a broken death penalty system in which 83% of the death sentences imposed at trial [that have completed appellate review] have been overturned. Louisiana has to decide whether it wants to spend more than $250 million dollars in the future, for a death penalty system that has resulted in more exonerations than executions over the last 15 years.”

Louisiana has executed only one person in the past 15 years, Gerald Bordelon in 2010. Bordelon dropped his appeals and “volunteered” for execution. In that same period, the state has exonerated five people: Dan L. Bright and Ryan Matthews in 2004, Damon Thibodeaux in 2012, Glenn Ford in 2014, and Rodricus Crawford in 2017. Dating back to 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s then-mandatory death penalty, the state has sent 242 defendants to death row. Ten of those prisoners were subsequently exonerated — or 4.1% of every death sentence imposed. Police or prosecutorial misconduct played a major role in each of the wrongful capital convictions. The study reported that Louisiana has the nation’s highest per capita death-row exoneration rate and the highest rate of death sentences overturned on appeal.

The study’s authors estimate that Louisiana would have to spend at least $281 million to maintain the death penalty long enough to execute a person arrested this year for capital murder. They found that Louisiana death-penalty cases take approximately three years after arrest to reach trial. Once sentenced to death, prisoners spend an average of 17.6 years before being executed. “The study reveals how shockingly little Louisiana gets in return for the millions being spent on the death penalty," said Marcus Maldonado, Louisiana Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty Advisory Committee member. "It is a staggering sum and an indefensible government expenditure when you consider all this money results in reversals, wrongful convictions, and no public safety benefit.” Two death-penalty abolition bills were proposed in the Louisiana legislature this year, sponsored by Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge) and Rep. Terry Landry (D – Iberia). One of them, SB 112, a constitutional amendment abolishing capital punishment, failed in the Senate on May 6. A bill to conceal information about the state’s lethal-injection drug purchases was reported favorably from a House committee on May 7 and is scheduled for floor debate on May 20.

(Calvin Johnson and William Quigley, An Analysis of the Economic Cost of Maintaining A Capital Punishment System In The Pelican State, Loyola University New Orleans, May 2, 2019; Bryn Stole, Cost of Louisiana's death penalty is $15.6 million per year, new study says, The Advocate, May 2, 2019; Press Release, Study: Louisiana death penalty costs millions, accomplishes 'next to nothing', Louisiana Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, May 2, 2019.) Read the Appendices to the study. See Costs and Studies.