Kansas Study Concludes Death Penalty is Costly Policy

In its review of death penalty expenses, the State of Kansas concluded that capital cases are 70% more expensive than comparable non-death penalty cases. The study counted death penalty case costs through to execution and found that the median death penalty case costs $1.26 million. Non-death penalty cases were counted through to the end of incarceration and were found to have a median cost of $740,000. For death penalty cases, the pre-trial and trial level expenses were the most expensive part, 49% of the total cost. The costs of appeals were 29% of the total expense, and the incarceration and execution costs accounted for the remaining 22%. In comparison to non-death penalty cases, the following findings were revealed:

  • The investigation costs for death-sentence cases were about 3 times greater than for non-death cases.
  • The trial costs for death cases were about 16 times greater than for non-death cases ($508,000 for death case; $32,000 for non-death case).
  • The appeal costs for death cases were 21 times greater.
  • The costs of carrying out an execution (including death row incarceration) were about half the costs of carrying out a non-death sentence in a comparable case.
  • Trials involving a death sentence averaged 34 days, including jury selection; non-death trials averaged about 9 days. (Performance Audit Report: Costs Incurred for Death Penalty Cases: A K-GOAL Audit of the Department of Corrections, December 2003)

Former Death Row Inmate Awarded $2.2 Million Wrongful Conviction Settlement

The Chicago City Council finance committee quickly approved a $2.2 million wrongful conviction settlement for former death row inmate Ronald Jones. “I think it is a good deal for the city,” said Chicago Alderman William Beavers, indicating that he and other aldermen breathed a sigh of relief that the city will get off so cheaply in its settlement with Jones, who was coerced into a confession to a 1985 rape and murder that he did not commit. Jones spent 14 years on Illinois’s death row before DNA tests excluded him as the perpetrator. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan pardoned Jones in 2000. (Chicago Tribune, December 16, 2003)

Costly Death Penalty Takes Toll on State Budgets

A report in the Polk County (Florida) Lakeland Ledger examined the financial impact of costly capital trials on states that are struggling to make ends meet. The report noted that death penalty cases negatively impact county governments because the hundreds of thousands of dollars that is spent annually on capital cases takes away funding from crucial indigent care programs and other important services. As an example, the paper notes, “Take the case of Tavares Wright. The legal bill stands at $200,000 and a 3rd murder trial for the Lakeland man is pending after the first 2 ended in mistrials.” During the early 1990’s, two capital trials in Jefferson County, Florida caused significant debt for the county. The trials were so expensive that they forced significant cuts in the county budget, such as a freeze on employee raises and a 20% reduction in the library budget. The article notes that counties in Texas, Indiana, Georgia, and elsewhere face similar budget challenges. (Lakeland Ledger, December 14, 2003).

New York Appeals Court Overturns Second Death Sentence

New York’s highest court has overturned the death sentence of James F. Cahill, one of six men remaining on the state’s death row. The Court found that the trial judge made errors in screening the jurors who convicted Cahill and sentenced him to death. In its 4-2 ruling, the Court also noted that prosecutors had not proven the “aggravating factors” required by New York’s death penalty law. Cahill will now serve a sentence of life in prison. (New York Times, November 26, 2003)

Despite the fact that New York has spent tens of millions of dollars on death penalty prosecutions, both cases reviewed by the state’s highest court have been reduced to life sentences.

Idaho Counties Struggle With Costs of the Death Penalty

Despite assistance from the county-supported statewide Capital Crimes Defense Fund, local officials in several Idaho counties are troubled by the economic burden of prosecuting death penalty cases. They are also concerned about a recent federal appellate court ruling that could overturn all existing state death sentences because Idaho’s sentencing procedures were deemed unconstitutional. Cassia County Commissioner Paul Christensen said that in addition to the millions of dollars spent to secure death penalty sentences, it will cost the county an estimated $200,000 each to pursue reimposition of the death penalty in those cases affected by the federal ruling. He said that it costs Idaho taxpayers about $1 million to imprison somebody for life, but a death penalty case may cost five times that. “I think people need to realize the impact it has on our state taxpayers,” said Christensen. Lemhi County Commissioner Robert Cope reported that his county of 7,700 residents could not afford to prosecute a death penalty case even with financial help from the state, and in 1990, Lewis County had to borrow money to pursue a capital conviction. (Idaho Statesman, September 19, 2003)

Death Penalty Costs Cause Concern in Kansas

As Kansas lawmakers struggle to make ends meet, some are calling for an examination of the costs associated with capital punishment. Senators Steve Morris and Anthony Hensley have opposing views on the death penalty, but the men recently joined forces to propose an audit of the state’s death penalty. Among other items, the audit will review $9 million in expenses filed by the Board of Indigents’ Defense Services between 1995-2002. The funding was used to defend those facing capital charges. While Hensley opposes capital punishment and Morris voted to reinstate the death penalty in 1994, both believe that now is the time to examine the costs and effectiveness of capital punishment and to consider other less expensive options. Morris, a Republican, noted, “Overall, we just need to evaluate the whole death penalty issue. If it’s going to take millions and millions of dollars per inmate and years before we can execute someone, that’s a major policy issue we need to look at.” (Hutchinson News, June 29, 2003).

The Legislative Coordinating Council of Kansas, a group of legislative leaders who represent the Kansas legislature when it’s not in session, recently authorized committees to study three aspects of the state’s capital punishment law this summer. Among the topics under review are the cost of imposing the death penalty, the state’s funding of the Board of Indigents’ Defense Services and its Death Penalty Unit, and the effectiveness of laws to ensure that mentally ill defendants are not executed. The cost study won’t begin until the legislative auditors complete a review of the costs of prosecuting death penalty cases, which is excepted to begin this month. The study results for all three reviews will be given to legislators during their 2004 session. (Kansas City Star, June 27, 2003).

High Death Penalty Expenses Could Be Used to More Effectively Fight Crime

States have been spending tens to hundreds of millions of dollars extra per year in order to pursue the death penalty, while crime fighting strategies that have been proven effective are starting to suffer as states face severe budget deficits. The New York Times recently collected some of the cutbacks to essential services:

  • In Multnomah County, Oregon, where Portland is located, the district attorney’s office is so short of money that they have stopped prosecuting drug and property crimes until at least July 1, 2003. In addition, Sheriff Bernie Giusto said he has had to lay off prison guards as a result of the state’s budget deficits, and the layoffs have reduced the number of prison beds available by more than 25%.
  • Seattle’s police force has been reduced by 24 officers and 50 civilians this year to make up for budget cuts from the Washington’s legislature. Burglaries, car thefts, and shoplifting are up 18% this year.
  • John Welter, San Diego’s Police Chief, says that he’s facing “the worst situation I’ve faced in 24 years on the job” because the city is no longer able to fill the positions of six or seven officers who retire each month, leaving the city 100 officers short by Spring 2004.
  • New York City, which is facing a $3.8 billion budget deficit, has slashed $250 million from the Police Department in recent months. The force has eliminated more than 4,000 officers in the past 3 years.

Some law enforcement officials believe that communities will be feeling more devastating affects of the deficits in the months to come. Portland Police Chief Mark Kroeker stated, “(T)he worst results are still six months down the road, as the bad guys realize nothing is going to happen to them, and then you start to get an increase in gang shootings, armed robberies and homicides.” (The New York Times, June 7, 2003).

Death Penalty Costs Concern State Leaders in Texas

In Texas, Montague County District Attorney Tim Cole and prosecutors in other small Texas counties that struggle to pay for costly capital punishment trials are calling for state lawmakers to pass a bill creating the sentencing option of life in prison without the possibility of parole. “You are more likely to face the death penalty in Houston or Dallas than in a small county. That’s just fact,” said Cole. “I have no philosophical problem with the death penalty. It’s just that stopping my office for 6 weeks to try a case is a problem.” (Associated Press, April 26, 2003)

Senator Steve Morris, who chairs the Kansas Senate Ways and Means Committee, recently voiced concern about the money needed to fund death penalty cases. Morris noted that if the costs of providing lawyers from the Kansas Board of Indigents Defense Services can’t be contained, the state should reconsider its death penalty laws. Earlier this year, Kansas lawmakers added $1.3 million to the Board’s $14.7 million budget, largely because of expenses associated with two death penalty cases. (Associated Press, April 27, 2003)

Funding for North Carolina Death Penalty Representation in Jeopardy

North Carolina House budget writers recently proposed eliminating crucial state funding for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, an organization that advises defense attorneys in death penalty cases. The Center currently receives $590,000 annually to train defense attorneys and advise them in approximately 350 capital cases a year. The center also directly represents about 30 people a year accused of murder, most of them at the appellate level. North Carolina Representative Martin Nesbitt warned, “It’s fools gold to do away with this. It’s not whether you are pro- or anti-death penalty. Whether people like it or not, the constitution demands that people receive adequate representation.” The Center maintains that elimination of funding could risk innocent lives and ultimately end up costing the state more money because an increased number of death penalty cases will be overturned at the federal level. The proposal must now go before the House’s full Appropriations Committee, where funding could be restored. The money could also be restored by North Carolina’s Senate during its consideration of the proposal. (Herald Sun, April 10, 2003)

Kansas Officials Fear Costly Death Penalty Will Shortchange Community Safety

As residents of Douglas County, Kansas, face a $1.7 million budget deficit that has already forced Commissioners to support $1.5 million in budget cuts, local leaders are questioning the wisdom of financing an upcoming capital trial that could cost as much as $2 million. Commissioner Charles Jones said that focusing the county’s resources on a single case will shortchange other criminal proceedings and law enforcement efforts. “That extra measure of justice or vengeance — however you want to call it — is not worth all the sacrifices you’ll have to make,” Jones said. Commissioner Bob Johnson echoed concerns voiced by Jones, noting that county reserves can be used to cover the trial’s high price tag, but that future decisions about seeking the death penalty could be ruled by dollars and cents. “We will provide the money we can,” Johnson said. “And then, clearly, when it becomes a case where they don’t have enough money to prosecute all cases, somebody’s going to have to decide: Can we afford to do this? That’s a tough issue.” (Lawrence Journal World, February 3, 2003)

California Governor Seeks $220 Million Death Row Facility

As California lawmakers seek to overcome one of the largest budget deficits in the state’s history, Governor Gray Davis has proposed building a $220 million state of the art death row complex at San Quentin prison. More than 600 death row inmates are currently housed in facilities throughout the state. The new facility would hold up to 1,000 death row inmates, leaving room for a significant growth in death row population. California averages more than 20 new death sentences per year, and it has carried out 10 executions since it reinstated capital punishment in 1977. (The New York Times, January 14, 2003) According to a report in the Sacramento Bee, the death penalty costs California $90 million annually beyond the ordinary costs of the justice system, which indicates that the state has spent more than $1 billion on the death penalty in the course of achieving these 10 executions. (Sacramento Bee, March 18, 1988)