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The death penalty is an extremely expensive and wasteful program that lacks clear societal benefits. Study after study has shown that expenses in a death penalty case dwarf those in cases where life in prison (with or without parole) is the maximum punishment sought by prosecutors. And the higher expenses apply whether or not the case results in an execution. Extra expenses are incurred from the time the prosecution gives notice that it intends to seek the death penalty. It is estimated that over the next 5 years, California will spend one billion dollars on its death penalty system. In Kansas, death penalty cases cost 70% more than comparable non-death penalty cases, even when expenses of long term incarceration are counted. A North Carolina study reported that the state would save $11 million annually if it dropped the death penalty. New York spent at least $200 million on a death penalty system from 1995-2004 without a single execution.
The death penalty is so expensive, in part, because of the unique nature of capital trials. A defendant facing death is constitutionally guaranteed the right to present any evidence of his or her character or background that might support a life verdict. In a non-capital trial, the defense and prosecution will prepare only for evidence related to the alleged crime, usually an event that took moments. In capital trials, both sides must prepare to present evidence spanning the entire life of the defendant. The legal and evidentiary issues are far more complex than in non-capital cases, demanding incredible amounts of attorney time. Factors in the uniquely high cost of a death penalty case include:
- more pre-trial time needed to prepare: cases typically take a year to come to trial
- more pre-trial motions filed and answered
- more experts hired by both sides
- twice as many attorneys appointed for the defense, and a comparable team for the prosecution
- jurors are individually quizzed on their views about the death penalty
- if there is a conviction, an entirely separate trial to determine the sentence
- longer trial: a cost study at Duke University estimated that death penalty trials take 3 to 5 times longer than typical murder trials
Of course, after conviction and sentencing, there will be at least one appeal, while inmates are held in the high and expensive security of death row.
Moreover, most of the death penalty's costs do not appear as line items in any budget. They are buried in the thicket of legal proceedings and hours spent by judges, clerks, prosecutors, and other law enforcement agencies.
What do we get for the money spent on the death penalty? Not much, according to people who are in a position to know. A recent poll of police chiefs asked what interferes with effective law enforcement. Rated at the top were lack of law enforcement resources, drug and alcohol abuse, family problems and child abuse, and a lack of programs for people with mental illness. Insufficient use of the death penalty was rated last. An overwhelming majority of the nation’s leading criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide.
Government must spend its resources on programs that promise the most bang for the buck. This is especially important at a time when our economy is reeling. New York has closed- for now- a financial sinkhole that swallowed an unjustified portion of its resources, and is poised to focus on alternatives that can provide increased public safety and better services for people who have been victimized by crime. Without the drain on money – and energy- of a death penalty system, humane, rational and cost effective modalities can be created, developed and nurtured.
Visit The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) and click on costs for links to reports on the costs associated with the death penalty and for more about the views of police chiefs and of criminologists, read the DPIC Report