Policy Issues

Costs

Studies consistently find that the death penalty is more expensive than alternative punishments.

DPIC Report: The 2% Death Penalty

DPIC Report: The 2% Death Penalty

How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All

DPIC Report: Smart on Crime

DPIC Report: Smart on Crime

Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis

Overview

The death penalty is a moral issue for some and a policy issue for others. However, it is also a government program with related costs and possible benefits. Many people assume that the state saves money by employing the death penalty since an executed person no longer requires confinement, health care, and related expenses. But in the modern application of capital punishment, that assumption has been proven wrong.

The death penalty is far more expensive than a system utilizing life-without-parole sentences as an alternative punishment. Some of the reasons for the high cost of the death penalty are the longer trials and appeals required when a person’s life is on the line, the need for more lawyers and experts on both sides of the case, and the relative rarity of executions. Most cases in which the death penalty is sought do not end up with the death penalty being imposed. And once a death sentence is imposed, the most likely outcome of the case is that the conviction or death sentence will be overturned in the courts. Most defendants who are sentenced to death essentially end up spending life in prison, but at a highly inflated cost because the death penalty was involved in the process.

The Issue

How much the death penalty actually costs and how that compares to a system in which a life sentence is the maximum punishment can only be determined by sophisticated studies, usually at the state level. Many such studies have been conducted and their conclusions are consistent: the death penalty imposes a net cost on the taxpayers compared to life without parole. The question is whether the assumed benefits of the death penalty are worth its costs and whether other systems might provide similar benefits at less cost. The assessments of law enforcement experts are particularly relevant in identifying what expenditures are most effective in reducing crime.

What DPIC Offers

This section contains summaries of each of the main cost studies on the death penalty and links to many of the entire studies. In addition, DPIC has prepared a number of reports that relate to the question of costs and to the opinions of police chiefs and other experts in this field.


Why is the death penalty so expensive?

  • Legal costs: Almost all people who face the death penalty cannot afford their own attorney. The state must assign public defenders or court-appointed lawyers to represent them (the accepted practice is to assign two lawyers), and pay for the costs of the prosecution as well.
  • Pre-trial costs: Capital cases are far more complicated than non-capital cases and take longer to go to trial. Experts will probably be needed on forensic evidence, mental health, and the background and life history of the defendant. County taxpayers pick up the costs of added security and longer pre-trial detention.
  • Jury selection: Because of the need to question jurors thoroughly on their views about the death penalty, jury selection in capital cases is much more time consuming and expensive.
  • Trial: Death-penalty trials can last more than four times longer than non-capital trials, requiring juror and attorney compensation, in addition to court personnel and other related costs.
  • Incarceration: Most death rows involve solitary confinement in a special facility. These require more security and other accommodations as the prisoners are kept for 23 hours a day in their cells.
  • Appeals: To minimize mistakes, every prisoner is entitled to a series of appeals. The costs are borne at taxpayers’ expense. These appeals are essential because some inmates have come within hours of execution before evidence was uncovered proving their innocence.

News & Developments


Aug 14, 2019

High Cost of Death-Penalty Cases Continues to Vex Utah County

The high cost of meet­ing its oblig­a­tion to pro­vide con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly-man­dat­ed effec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion for indi­gent defen­dants in cap­i­tal cas­es con­tin­ues to gen­er­ate con­tro­ver­sy in Utah’s fourth largest coun­ty. With two cap­i­tal tri…

Mar 13, 2019

California Governor Announces Moratorium on Executions

California Governor Gavin Newsom on March 13, 2019 declared a mora­to­ri­um on exe­cu­tions in the state with the nation’s largest death row. Newsom imple­ment­ed the mora­to­ri­um through an exec­u­tive order grant­i­ng reprieves to the 737 pris­on­ers currently…

Nov 16, 2018

DPIC Analysis: The Decline of the Death Penalty in Philadelphia

During his elec­tion cam­paign, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner described the eco­nom­ic waste­ful­ness of city pros­e­cu­tors’ pur­suit of the death penal­ty as light­ing mon­ey on fire.” A DPIC analy­sis of the out­comes of the more than 200 deat…