What Criminal Sentence Costs More: Death or Life in Prison?

It takes a lot of time and money to carry out the ultimate penalty

person in orange jumpsuit being taken into jail cell by police officer

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In 2019, 34 death sentences were imposed and 22 people were executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. There are many ways to carry out an execution in the United States, with lethal injection being the primary method in 29 states.

Not everyone who is sentenced to death is executed. Since the punishment is permanent, the U.S. legal system provides many opportunities for the defense to avoid it. Between 1973 and 2016, around 83.2% of those who received the death penalty were not executed. More then one-third had their sentences overturned on appeal. Reasons included:

  • The underlying statute was unconstitutional.
  • The defendant was declared not guilty.
  • The defendant was found guilty but sentenced to a lesser punishment.

Others weren't executed because they died of natural causes awaiting execution or had their sentences commuted.

Seeking the death penalty is expensive. The total includes all the costs that occur between the prosecutor's decision to seek the death sentence and ultimately the execution if it occurs.

Key Takeaways

  • The debate over whether or not to abolish the death penalty often centers around morality or its effectiveness in preventing crime.
  • Due to its severity, death row and execution costs are an economic burden on government budgets.
  • It's more cost-effective to commute death penalties to life imprisonment sentences without parole.

The seriousness and complexity of seeking the death penalty increases its cost. First, the prosecution must go through a preliminary hearing. It’s looking to see if enough evidence exists to convene a grand jury. This group of around 23 people meets for at least a month before deciding whether the case can proceed. There is also another hearing before a trial can begin. If the case proceeds this far, then the prosecution can announce it seeks the death penalty and move forward.

Key Facts

  • In Kansas, the median defense costs for death penalty trials was $508,000 each. In contrast, the defense cost for non-capital trial cases averages just $33,000.
  • In Oklahoma, the average capital case costs 3.2 times more than the average non-capital case.
  • In Maryland, taxpayers paid $186 million between 1978 and 1999 to prosecute death penalty cases. The average cost per case was $3 million. Only five prisoners were executed during that time.

The jury selection process for a capital case is more complex than for a non-capital case. Each juror must be able to consider the evidence and render the death sentence if warranted. The trial proceeds as it normally would, but is longer because of the amount of evidence that is introduced. Such factors include the mental impairments and past history of the defendant. It also includes questions on whether one or more people were murdered and whether it was done in a cruel manner.

Cost of Appeals

Another reason for the overall additional cost is that capital trials automatically receive an appeal at the state appellate courts. However, before an appeal is filed, many defendants issue a motion for a new trial, delaying things further. If the appellate court upholds the death penalty, then the case goes to the state Supreme Court. If neither overturns the sentence, it automatically goes to a federal judge for yet another review. Some defense attorneys petition the U.S. Supreme Court as a last resort.

If all the courts uphold the conviction, the defendant can ask the state's governor or even the U.S. President for clemency.

Since 1976, only 288 death row inmates have been granted clemency for humanitarian reasons. They include doubts about the defendant's guilt or judgments about the death penalty.

Cost of Incarceration on Death Row

Between 2008 and 2017, Louisiana spent $15.6 million each year to maintain its capital punishment system. This does not include prosecution, court costs for cases that never went to trial, or the cost of the state’s supreme court review. During that time, the state executed one person.

In 2018, the state had 69 death row inmates. The average length of time on death row was 16.3 years. More than one-third had served more than 20 years. It costs the state $56,000 a year per inmate just to pay for staffing, seven times more than the cost to staff a trustee camp for minimum security inmates.

Death row inmates incur more health care costs, too. The average length of time waiting on death row is 15 years. In California, it can be 20 years. As a result, death row inmates are older on average than the general prison population. That leads to higher health care costs that come from age-related illnesses.

As a group, death row inmates are more likely to suffer from serious mental health disorders. One study found that more than half suffered from psychosis. Another claimed that almost 90% had post-traumatic stress disorder from family violence and abuse. Management of inmates with these issues increases the cost for states.

Their time on death row aggravates these disorders. Many inmates suffer from “Death Row Phenomenon.” Since they don’t know when the sentence will be carried out, they become depressed and even suicidal. They live in isolation and don’t participate in education and employment programs. They only receive restricted visits from family and friends. The resultant severe depression leads to physical illnesses, which must be treated.

Cost of Execution

This final step costs the least, but it is rising. In 2011, the average cost of a drug used in lethal injections was just $83.55 per dose. By 2013, authorities in Texas paid $1,500; in Missouri, they paid $8,000; and in 2017, Virginia agreed to pay $16,500 per dose. The reason? European chemical suppliers, who were the main source of the drugs, had left the business, restricting supply. Many of their customers had complained that they considered the death penalty to be inhumane. Alternate suppliers are known as compounding pharmacies, who remain secret in many cases, now provide the necessary drugs.

Nevertheless, the execution itself is the least of the costs involved on that fateful day. The state must also pay for wages paid that day alone, travel costs, goods and services for the media, and counseling for staff.

Total Additional Costs of the Death Penalty

A Susquehanna University report found that, on average, across all 50 states, a death row inmate costs $1.12 million more than a general population inmate. In July 2018, there were 2,738 inmates on death row. That's almost $3 billion additional expense than if they had all been sentenced to life in prison instead.

Cost Highlights

  • In California, the death penalty has cost more than $4 billion since 1978. That includes the costs of trials, appeals, and incarceration on death row. In 2019, the California governor issued a moratorium on the death penalty.
  • In Florida, enforcing the death penalty costs $51 million a year more than it would have to give all first-degree murderers life in prison without parole.
  • In North Carolina, death penalty cases cost $2.16 million per execution more than sentencing murderers to life imprisonment.