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

Sentencing someone to life in prison is also expensive. But which one costs more? If prosecutors solely considered cost, which ultimate punishment would they choose?

Learn more about the costs of the death penalty compared to the costs of life in prison.

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.

Death Penalty Background

There are many ways to carry out an execution in the United States, with lethal injection being the primary method in 29 states.

In the United States, capital cases are considered differently than cases that do not involve the death penalty, often known as "death is different jurisprudence." This is to ensure that defendants are not executed without their rights and circumstances being fully considered.

Whether or not courts are able to meet these standards is a topic of debate among legal scholars. Many argue that trials and sentencing fails to meet the "death is different" standard, while others argue that judicial activism has failed made those standards less clear than ever.

In a case seeking the death penalty, there are several steps before a trial can even begin.

First, the prosecution must go through a preliminary hearing. The goal is 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.

The seriousness and complexity of seeking the death penalty increase its cost.

  • In Kansas, the median cost for death penalty trials is over $500,000 each, compared to about $33,000 for non-death penalty cases. The cost of the full case in which the death penalty is sought is, on average, $1.2 million, compared to $740,000 for non-death penalty cases.
  • In Oklahoma, the average capital case costs 3.2 times more than the average non-capital case. It also costs twice as much to keep offenders on death row than not on death row.
  • In Maryland, taxpayers paid $186 million more to prosecute death penalty cases than non-death penalty cases between 1978 and 1999. The average cost per case was $3 million, compared to $1.1 million for cases where the death penalty was not sought. Only five prisoners were executed during that time.

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 appeal it.

Often, those who received the death penalty are not executed. This can be because they have their conviction overturned on appeal for 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 are not executed because they die of natural causes awaiting execution or have their sentences commuted.

Cost of Death Penalty Trials and Appeals

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:

  • Potential mental impairments of the defendant
  • Past criminal and social history
  • Whether one or more people were murdered
  • Whether it was done in a cruel manner

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 1977, only 293 death row inmates have been granted clemency for humanitarian reasons. They include doubts about the defendant's guilt, concerns about the defendant's mental health or impairments, or judgments about the death penalty.

Cost of Incarceration on Death Row

Between 2008 and 2017, Louisiana spent over $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.

Staffing costs, in particular, drive up the cost of maintaining capital punishment systems. This can include:

  • Additional security staffing
  • Observation and oversight of death row inmates
  • Facilities and building maintenance

It costs a 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. 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 found that almost 90% had post-traumatic stress disorder from family violence and abuse.

In 2020, every inmate executed either had significant mental and emotional impairments or had been under age 21 when the crime was committed.

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.

Death row inmates 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.

Management of inmates with these issues increases the cost for states.

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 2014, that cost had risen to $1,500 in Texas. In Missouri, news sources reported that the state paid $8,000; and in 2016, the Virginia Department of Corrections was reported to have paid $16,500 per dose.

These rising costs are primarily because European chemical suppliers, who were the main source of the drugs, have stopped producing drugs for lethal injections, restricting supply. Sometimes these companies were responding to customers who considered the death penalty inhumane. In other cases, European governments had worked to reduce the supply of these drugs as a means of curbing the death penalty worldwide.

Alternate suppliers known as compounding pharmacies, who remain secret in many cases, now provide the necessary drugs.

The execution itself is only one of the costs involved. The state must also pay for:

  • Wages
  • Travel costs
  • Goods and services for the media
  • Counseling for staff

Highlights and Additional Costs

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.

The combination of moral pressure and financial realities has caused public opinion to swing away from the death penalty in many states.

A 2008 report issued in California stated that costs of the death penalty system were about $137 million per year, and that implementing reforms to ensure a fair process would cost $232.7 million per year. By contrast, the report found that a system in which life in prison was the maximum penalty would cost only $11.5 million per year.

A similar report released in Tennessee found that at every step, capital murder trials were more expensive and longer than trials that did not seek the death penalty. On average, death penalty trials cost 48% more than trials where the prosecution sought a sentence of life in prison.

The report also noted that there was no clear evidence that the death penalty served as a deterrent to crime.

During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, state executions were their lowest in 37 years. Despite a sudden increase in federal executions under the Trump administration, this meant that executions across the United States were at record lows.

In 2020, Colorado became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty.