Capital Punishment Costs are Shifted from the Few Jurisdictions that Use it the Most to the Majority that Barely Use it At All

WASHINGTON, DC – Contrary to the assumption that the death penalty is widely used in the U.S., only a few jurisdictions employ capital punishment extensively, according to a new report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). Only two percent of the counties in the U.S. have been responsible for the majority of cases leading to executions since 1976. Likewise, only two percent of the counties are responsible for the majority of today’s death row population and recent death sentences.

“Eighty-five percent of the counties in the U.S. have not had a single case resulting in an execution in over 45 years,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and author of the report. “The relatively few prosecutors who drive the death penalty create enormous burdens for those outside their district. The rest of the country is paying a high tariff on behalf of the small percentage of the counties that are actually using the death penalty.”

The top ten counties among the two percent of counties responsible for more than half of the nation’s death row population are: Los Angeles County, CA; Harris County, TX; Philadelphia County, PA; Maricopa County, AZ; Riverside County, CA; Clark County, NV; Orange County, CA; Duval County, FL; Alameda County, CA; and San Diego County, CA.

The top ten counties among the two percent of counties responsible for over half of the executions since 1976 are: Harris County, TX; Dallas County, TX; Oklahoma County, OK; Tarrant County, TX; Bexar County, TX; Montgomery County, TX; Tulsa County, OK; Jefferson County, TX; St. Louis County, MO; and Brazos County, TX.

Just four counties in Texas (out of 254) account for almost half of all executions in the state. Three counties in California produce more than half of the state’s death row - the largest in the country.

The report noted that those counties that use the death penalty the most have some of the highest reversal rates and egregious examples of injustice:

Maricopa County, Arizona had four times the number of pending death penalty cases per capita as Los Angeles or Houston. The district attorney responsible for this aggressive use was recently disbarred for his overall misconduct.

Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania has the third largest number of people on death row in the country, but it has ranked lowest in the state in paying attorneys representing death penalty defendants. Capital convictions are frequently reversed on appeal and later reduced to life sentences because the county did not provide adequate representation to many defendants.

During the tenure of one district attorney in New Orleans, Louisiana, four death row inmates were exonerated and freed because of prosecutorial misconduct, bringing a stinging rebuke from four Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The report concludes that the death penalty campaigns of relatively few counties impose lasting obligations on the entire state: “This peculiar exercise of discretion results in enormous expenses being passed on to taxpayers across the state. Moreover, the correlation between the high use of the death penalty and a high rate of error means that courts in these states will be occupied for years with costly appeals and retrials. Some states have recently chosen to opt out of this process, at great savings to their taxpayers.”


DPIC, phone: 202-289-4022


Twitter: @DPInfoCtr