The death penalty costs a huge amount of money. A death penalty trial can cost millions more than a trial for life without parole. That’s before you get to the added costs of appeals, housing someone on death row, and performing an execution. That money could be better spent on priorities that actually make us safer and prevent violent crime, like updating corrections facilities, providing better law enforcement and corrections training, hiring more officers, and improving mental health treatment.
Our findings are unequivocal: Colorado’s death penalty imposes tremendous costs on taxpayers and its benefits are, at best, speculative, and more likely, illusory.
Justin Marceau and Hollis Whitson Justin F. Marceau is an Associate Professor at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law. Hollis A. Whitson is a lawyer in Denver, Colorado, authors of “The Cost of Colorado’s Death Penalty“
Cost factored by court days:
“In a recent study, court docket entries from 1999 to 2010 were used to analyze the total number of court days, including pretrial proceedings, trial, and sentencing, that were required for capital murder cases versus murder cases prosecuted for life imprisonment without parole. Using this data, it is possible to see that a death penalty trial takes approximately 153 court days, as compared to a prosecution for life without parole, which takes an average of just over 24 days of court time.”
Additional cost information from around the country:
Assessment of Costs by Judge Arthur Alarcon and Prof. Paula Mitchell (2011, updated 2012)
The authors concluded that the cost of the death penalty in California has totaled over $4 billion since 1978:
- $1.94 billion–Pre-Trial and Trial Costs
- $925 million–Automatic Appeals and State Habeas Corpus Petitions
- $775 million–Federal Habeas Corpus Appeals
- $1 billion–Costs of Incarceration
The authors calculated that, if the Governor commuted the sentences of those remaining on death row to life without parole, it would result in an immediate savings of $170 million per year, with a savings of $5 billion over the next 20 years.Read More
Assessment of costs by the Idaho Legislative Office of Performance Evaluations (2014)
A new, but limited, study of the costs of the death penalty in Idaho found that capital cases are more costly and take much more time to resolve than non-capital cases.
- One measure of death-penalty costs was reflected in the time spent by attorneys handling appeals. The State Appellate Public Defenders office spent about 44 times more time on a typical death penalty appeal than on a life sentence appeal (almost 8,000 hours per capital defendant compared to about 180 hours per non-death penalty defendant). Capital cases with trials took 20.5 months to reach a conclusion while non-capital cases with trials took 13.5 months.
- The study also noted how infrequently the death penalty was applied in Idaho: of the 251 defendants who were charged with first-degree murder since 1998, the death penalty was sought against 55 (22%) of them, and just 7 were sentenced to death. More than half of the 40 people sentenced to death since 1977 have received lesser sentences after their death sentences were overturned.
Assessment of costs by the Kansas Judicial Council (2014)
The authors examined 34 potential death-penalty cases from 2004-2011.
- The study found that defense costs for death penalty trials averaged $395,762 per case, compared to $98,963 per case when the death penalty was not sought.
- Costs incurred by the trial court showed a similar disparity: $72,530 for cases with the death penalty; $21,554 for those without.
- Even in cases that ended in a guilty plea and did not go to trial, cases where the death penalty was sought incurred about twice the costs for both defense ($130,595 v. $64,711) and courts ($16,263 v. $7,384), compared to cases where death was not sought.
- The time spent on death cases was also much higher. Jury trials averaged 40.13 days in cases where the death penalty was being sought, but only 16.79 days when it was not an option.
- Justices of the Kansas Supreme Court assigned to write opinions estimated they spent 20 times more hours on death penalty appeals than on non-death appeals.
- The Department of Corrections said housing prisoners on death row cost more than twice as much per year ($49,380) as for prisoners in the general population ($24,690).
Assessment of Costs by the Urban Institute (2008)
- The authors forecast that the lifetime cost to taxpayers for the capitally-prosecuted cases in Maryland since 1978 will be $186 million. That translates to $37.2 million for each of the state’s five executions since the state reenacted the death penalty.
- The study estimates that the average cost to Maryland taxpayers for reaching a single death sentence is $3 million – $1.9 million more than the cost of a non-death penalty case. (This includes investigation, trial, appeals, and incarceration costs.)
- The study examined 162 capital cases that were prosecuted between 1978 and 1999 and found that those cases will cost $186 million more than what those cases would have cost had the death penalty not existed as a punishment.
- At every phase of a case, according to the study, capital murder cases cost more than non-capital murder cases.
- Of the 162 capital cases, there were 106 cases in which a death sentence was sought but not handed down in Maryland. Those cases cost the state an additional $71 million compared to the cost non-death penalty cases. Those costs were incurred simply to seek the death penalty where the ultimate outcome was a life or long-term prison sentence.
Assessment of cost commissioned by the Nevada legislature (2014)
The study was based on a sample of Nevada murder cases and includes the costs of incarceration.
– The average death penalty case costs a half million dollars more than a case in which the death penalty is not sought. The Legislative Auditor estimated the cost of a murder trial in which the death penalty was sought cost $1.03 to $1.3 million, whereas cases without the death penalty cost $775,000.
– The study noted that the extra costs of a death penalty trial were still incurred even in cases where a jury chose a lesser sentence, with those cases costing $1.2 million.
Because certain court and prosecution costs could not be obtained, the authors said the costs were, “understated,” and may be higher than the estimates given.
A study of the cost of the only death penalty case in New Hampshire since 1939 estimates that the state has spent over 5 million.
A comprehensive cost study by Duke University for the state of North Carolina estimates that abolition of the death penalty would have reduced state expenditures on murder cases by about $10.8 million per year.
Assessment of cost by Seattle University (2014)
The study used only cases from 1997 forward. Using only cases in the study, the gross bill to taxpayers for the death penalty will be about $120 million. Washington has carried out five executions since reinstatement, implying a cost of $24 million per execution. In three of those five cases, the inmate waived parts of his appeals, thus reducing costs.
– Each death penalty case cost an average of $1 million more than a similar case where the death penalty was not sought ($3.07 million, versus $2.01 million).
– Defense costs were about three times as high in death penalty cases and prosecution costs were as much as four times higher than for non-death penalty cases.