Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Fiscal Costs of the Death Penalty and How It Costs More Than an Arm and a Leg

The death penalty has caused much debate in this country. Does the death penalty deter crime? Should the government have the power over life and death? Is the death penalty appropriate if even one innocent person is executed? These are questions that typically surround the debate, but there is one I would like to cover: does the death penalty cost more than life in prison? This was a question the state of Nevada's Legislative Auditor seemed to answer in its audit released recently.

Looking at 28 death penalty cases in Nevada, the average death penalty case costs $532,000 more than a case when the death penalty is not sought (p. 10), which is nearly twice as much as a murder case for life without parole. Although incarceration costs were less for cases that sought the death penalty (Exhibit 7), what caused the death penalty cases to supersede the non-death penalty cases was average case costs (Exhibit 5). Most of the costs are racked up even before the trial begins (Exhibit 10), which is all the more damning since most cases in which the prosecutor seeks the death penalty does not actually impose the death penalty (Exhibit 2). For death penalty cases, they require more lawyers, more preparation, more investigators, more special motions, more witnesses, more experts, a longer jury selection, not to mention a longer appeals process (Exhibit 6).

Many other states, such as California, Indiana, Maryland, Louisiana, New JerseyMontana, Connecticut, North Carolina, Ohio, and Kansas, have attempted to capture the costs and have come to the same conclusion: the death penalty costs way more than life without parole. The money that was spent on the death penalty could have been spent on real crime control measures, such as solving, preventing, or prosecuting other crimes. The evidence is clear. If one wants to make an argument for the death penalty, trying to make the argument based on cost savings is not the way to go.


  1. Many Problems: Nevada Death Penalty Cost Study

    To: Nevada Legislature and the audit team
    District Attorneys

    cc: media

    RE: Fiscal Cost of the Death Penalty, PERFORMANCE AUDIT, State Of Nevada, 2014

    From : Dudley Sharp

    The "Fiscal Cost of the Death Penalty" audit (Nevada Study) has some real problems.

    To review:

    1) The Nevada Study limited costs reviews, looking at only Washoe and Clark counties and starting cost evaluations in 2000 (1), even though Nevada's modern death penalty protocol began in 1977.

    Comment: While this, by itself, isn't enough to make the study worthless, it gets worse.

    No media coverage is explaining those facts, giving folks the wrong impression that the study may have been thorough and fair, properly comparing costs, on an apples to apples basis, which it did not.

    2) The Nevada Study only included one death penalty case that ended in execution, 11 years after sentencing.

    Comment: Since 1977, there have been 11 additional executions, which occurred, on average, 4.5 years after sentencing, likely, making the death penalty less costly than similar true LWOP cases.

    3) The Nevada Study wrongly included parole eligible cases, calling them all non death penalty cases. 56% of the non death penalty cases were/are eligible for parole (notes, bottom of pg 11).

    Comment: The only considered alternative to the death penalty is life without parole (LWOP), therefore, an equal consideration of LWOP and death penalty case costs, only, should be the measure. Parole eligible cases should have been excluded from the cost review and were, likely, included to lower the non death penalty costs, improperly.

    Correction: Instead there should have been an apples to apples cost review, as with:


    1) The costs of a maximum death penalty sentence trial, resulting in a death penalty sentence, with pre trial, trial, appellate and incarceration costs until execution or other death:

    2) Plea Bargains: Only a death penalty option can result in a LWOP plea bargain. Therefore, any plea bargain costs savings from pre trial, trial and/or appeals accrue as a cost credit on the death penalty side of the ledger;



    The costs of a death penalty eligible crime, with a maximum LWOP sentence trial, resulting in a LWOP sentence, with pre trial, trial, appellate and incarceration costs until death.

    This is the standard for looking at a true apples to apples cost comparison between the death penalty and its only considered alternative, LWOP.


  2. contd

    4 ) If you wish to keep a similar protocol, as the Nevada Study, LWOP should be the only cost consideration, vs death, and should be evaluated in the exact same fashion as was death, as:

    LWOP sought and sentenced
    LWOP sought, sentenced and inmate death
    LWOP sought but not sentenced

    And the death penalty should include this as well:

    Death penalty sought, sentenced and execution "or other death".

    5) Exhibit 7 presumes all death sentenced cases include 25 years of incarceration? Why?

    Comment: What if the presumption was 2-11 years, the actual time frame prior to execution, for the previous 12 executions?

    Did the study presume 40-60 years of incarceration time for LWOP cases, prior to death?

    NOTE: The Virginia Example: Since 1976, Virginia executed 70% (108) of her death sentenced murderers, within 7.1 years, on average (2).

    6) Plea Bargains: continued.

    With LWOP as the maximum sanction, any future "capital" murder cases will only have life WITH PAROLE as a plea bargain option, in many cases not acceptable, meaning that the exclusion of the death penalty may result in more trials, fewer plea bargains and more


    If you don't want your worst criminals to be eligible for parole, you must retain the death penalty option because, even if not given, LWOP is the alternative. Whereas, with only LWOP, if not given, parole eligibility will result.


    7) The death penalty protects innocent lives, three ways, better than LWOP (3). Therefore, you need to calculate the moral and fiscal costs of sacrificing more innocents, if you remove the death penalty.





    1) AUDIT HIGHLIGHTS (left hand of Summary page), under Purpose of Audit, Preface.

    2) See Virginia
    Saving Costs with The Death Penalty

    3) a) Enhanced incapacitation: No one disputes that living murderers harm and murder, again. Executed murderers don't.

    b) Enhanced due process: No one disputes that the death penalty has greater due process protections than does any other sanction, meaning that the death penalty offers greater protections for both the actually innocent and the actually guilty than does LWOP, as actual innocents are more likely to die in prison than it is that actual innocents will be executed (2).

    c) Enhanced deterrence: The evidence that the death penalty deters some is overwhelming. The evidence that the death penalty deters none does not exist (2).

    99.7% of those murderers subject to the death penalty do all they can, pre trial, in trial, on appeals and in commutations requests to avoid death and secure life.

    Obviously, that does not tell the tale of deterrence. But this does:

    Death is feared more than life; life is preferred over death. What we fear more, deters more. What we prefer more, deters less.

    What of those who don't murder - all the rest of us. It is just the same. Death is feared more than life. Life is preferred over death.



    The Death Penalty: Do Innocents Matter? A Review of All Innocence Issues


    OF COURSE THE DEATH PENALTY DETERS: A review of the debate

  3. Dear dudleysharp,

    Life is a bit hectic on my end at this time, but I figure that an abbreviated response would be preferable to none. I wasn't the most impressed with the Nevada study, either. I do share some of your concerns regarding the study. It's hard enough to come across adequate death penalty data since capital punishment is so arbitrarily and infrequently implemented. The primary reason for using the Nevada study was to use it as a springboard for discussion. Although it is nowhere near the best study conducted, its findings still line up with the studies done by the ten other states that I hyperlinked in my blog post.