Could Abolishing the Death Penalty Help States Save Money?

State legislators and reformers argue cost in push to abolish death penalty.

December 6, 2010, 1:46 PM

WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2010— -- In 2003, Seattle resident Robert Kerr was abducted from his apartment and found dead 30 miles from his home, with his bank account emptied and without clothes or identification. At the end of 2010, the state of Washington has yet to arrest or convict anyone for his death.

While Kerr's killers have never been found, the state will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in the coming year on the death penalty for people already behind bars -- a situation that has reformers, and Kerr's family, clamoring for change.

Kerr's case is one of thousands of unsolved murders, and it's the reason his sister, Judy Kerr, supports her state, California, in abolishing the death penalty and reallocating the millions of dollars it spends on death row inmates each year to solving cold cases.

With so many states facing deficits, legislation on the death penalty has started to address the cost of the policy, while justification for it has traditionally focused on whether it's right or wrong.

"I thought the crime would be solved quickly, and there would be justice for me," Kerr, a registered nurse from San Francisco, said. "The state needs to be allocating its money toward different things."

California has a $25 billion deficit and almost 700 inmates on death row. According to a 2008 report issued by the California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice, maintaining the criminal justice system costs $137 million per year, but the cost would drop to $11.5 million if it weren't for the death penalty. A 2010 study from the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union found that California would be forced to spend $1 billion on the death penalty in the next five years if the state does not replace capital punishment with permanent imprisonment.

California is not the only state where cost has become an argument for abolishing the death penalty.

Last week a commission report recommended to the New Hampshire legislature that the state not expand its death penalty, citing its higher costs as one of the reasons, and the same week a bill to abolish the death penalty in Illinois passed in the state's House Judiciary Committee.

Illinois Still Needs One More Vote

Illinois Democratic State Rep. Karen Yarbrough, a sponsor of the bill, said she had been working on the issue of abolishing the death penalty for four years, and this is the closest the vote has ever come in the legislature for this measure. Yarbrough said she needs one more vote to call the bill to the Illinois House floor for a vote in January.

"Illinois has spent over $100 million in 10 years and hasn't put anyone to death," Yarbrough said. "It's time to put this barbaric practice to rest."

Yarbrough's bill would take the money saved from the death penalty and put it toward solving cold cases in the state, and training law enforcement officials.

"We have a $13 billion shortfall in the budget," she said. "We want to be pennywise and be able to put this money into something substantial."

Darryl Stallworth served as a prosecutor for 15 years in Alameda County, Calif., during which he tried a capital punishment case. He now opposes the death penalty.

Stallworth and Kerr both said that not only did they believe the death penalty failed to deliver justice, but that the resources put toward it could better serve Californians if it was put toward other areas of law enforcement.

"You can support the death penalty, but would you support it if you knew it cost us police officers?" Stallworth said. "These hundreds of millions of dollars are going to be needed to be spent on things that are more proactive."

But for supporters of the death penalty, cost is not part of the calculation in whether to mete out capital punishment.

Michael Rushford, who heads the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said some states' death penalty systems are less cost efficient than others. But he said that abolishing the death penalty shouldn't be a question, since in his view, capital punishment protects society and delivers justice.

Rushford cited the Oklahoma City bombing case as an example of where the death penalty was carried out properly. Timothy McVeigh, a U.S. Army veteran and former security guard, was convicted of 11 federal offenses and sentenced to death after detonating a truck bomb that killed 168 people in 1995. McVeigh was executed in 2001.

Rushford compared the California appeals process for a capital punishment case, which is about 25 years, to other states, such as Virginia, where it is only about six years. If the law enforcement system is reformed to move the process more quickly, the cost could be lessened, he said.

"The [California] system is rigged against a prompt process for, after the determination of guilt, moving the case along," Rushford said. "So the cost is enormous."

He said that the legislatures in many states that spend excess funds on the death penalty aren't giving police and lawyers the power they need to enforce capital punishment.

'Rigged' System

"The system has been rigged not to enforce the [death] sentence by the opponents of the death penalty, and it's been the opponents who are now holding up the cost of that to say, 'Let's get rid of it,'" Rushford said.

A typical cost per year for the death penalty ranges from $10 million to $20 million in states that have one or fewer executions per year, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center. This number does not take into account states that have extreme numbers of executions or death row inmates, such as Texas or California.

"There have been quite a few studies in various states," Dieter said. "And the studies have all concluded that the death penalty is more of a burden on taxpayers than if the same defendant receives a life sentence."

A study by a Duke University economist in 2009 of North Carolina's death penalty costs found that the state could save $11 million a year if it abolished the death penalty.

In 2008, an Urban Institute study of Maryland found that a death penalty trial costs $1.9 million more than a nondeath penalty trial. The study also estimated that the state's taxpayers had paid at least $37.2 million for each of the five executions the state had carried out since 1978.

The Tennessee Comptroller of the Currency estimated in 2004 that death penalty trials cost an average of 48 percent more than trials in which prosecutors seek life imprisonment.

A 2003 legislative audit in Kansas concluded that capital cases are 70 percent more expensive than comparable nondeath penalty cases.

Every part of a death penalty case is longer and requires more legal time, since capital punishment is on the table, Dieter said.

Two lawyers are usually assigned to each side of the case, and in general, the jury selection takes longer. There are also usually two trials in death penalty cases -- one to determine guilt and one to determine sentencing.

Once defendants are sentenced to capital punishment, they may still cost more than inmates who receive sentences of life-without-parole, even though their imprisonment may be for a shorter period of time. Death penalty inmates are normally held in single cells and in solitary confinement. They require high security and more guards.

Death Row Inmates Cost More

Other inmates often do work in the prison, which can offset some taxpayer money, but death row inmates almost never work.

But the view that the death penalty is a poorly allocated expense isn't shared by everyone.

A Georgia study conducted by the National Institute of Corrections in 2004 found that the state's aging inmate population cost three times that of a younger inmate population in health care costs.

"Life in prison is more expensive than the death penalty when you're paying for health care for aging life-with-parolers," said Diane Clemence, spokeswoman for Texas pro-death penalty group Justice for All.

Clemence said death row inmates wouldn't cost states as much, since they shouldn't be staying in the prisons into old age.

"It's not an apples-to-apples cost issue," she said. "It's a moral issue and it's an issue about justice and safety."

Rushford also cited the health care costs of keeping more inmates with life sentences.

"What if they needed a heart transplant?" he said. "Then taxpayers would be paying millions for an inmate to get a new heart. Would people think that was just?"

Dieter said that although he had testified for many state legislatures on the costs of the death penalty, the arguments for and against capital punishment remain moral. However, in light of the recession, the cost is making the public and state legislatures more open to repealing or abolishing the death penalty, he said.

"The public feels the budget and the economic recession directly," Dieter said. "When it affects your paycheck, you say, well what other things can be cut? I support the death penalty, but if we're spending $10 million a year and getting one execution a year, you may be able to let it go."

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