Death Penalty Costs Washington Taxpayers MillionsJanuary 15, 2015

Seeking the death penalty costs on average $1 million more per case, according to a new report on the costs of capital punishment in Washington.

Researchers from Seattle University evaluated the economic costs associated with pursuit of the death penalty, compared to cases where the death penalty was not sought, for aggravated first-degree murder cases in Washington State. The death penalty was reinstated in Washington in 1981, but the study examined 147 aggravated first-degree murder cases since 1997.

The study found that a first-degree murder case in which prosecutors seek the death penalty costs on average $3.07 million, compared to $2.01 million for a first-degree murder case where the death penalty is not sought. That is a difference of $1,058,885. In 2014 dollars, the difference is $1,152,808.

Unlike most previous studies of the costs of the death penalty in Washington, this study documented the entire scope of economic costs from the beginning of trial proceedings through incarceration and execution. Defense costs were about three times as high in death penalty cases and prosecution costs were as much as four times higher than for non-death penalty cases. Researchers could not obtain data from the Department of Corrections needed to include the likely higher yearly incarceration costs for people incarcerated on death row, which resulted in an underestimation of those costs.

"Combining all cost categories," the study concluded, "the average total costs to the justice system related to pursuit of the death penalty are about 1.4 to 1.5 times more expensive than [non-death penalty] cases."

Professor Peter Collins, the lead author of the study, said, “What this provides is evidence of the costs of death-penalty cases, empirical evidence. We went into it [the study] wanting to remain objective. This is purely about the economics; whether or not it’s worth the investment is up to the public, the voters of Washington and the people we elected.”

The Death Penalty Information Center calculated that the total bill to taxpayers for the death penalty cases identified in the study is about $120 million. That comes to $24 million for each of the five executions Washington has carried out since 1981. (In three of those five cases, the inmate waived parts of his appeals, thus reducing costs.)

The study also noted that in Washington, in 75 percent of cases involving death sentences, either the conviction and/or the death sentence have been reversed.