High Cost of Death Penalty Causes States to Reconsider Capital Punishment


During an era of financial austerity, the high cost of seeking and carrying out the death penalty is causing states to reconsider capital punishment laws.

According to the New York Times, a federal judge found the government’s attempt to seek capital punishment for an organized crime leader who was already serving a life- without-parole sentence to be “expensive and futile.” After five weeks of trial estimated to have cost the public more than $10 million, jurors voted unanimously to sentence the defendant to life imprisonment without parole.

Similar financial considerations have recently prompted Nevada state senators to pass a bill to audit the cost of the death penalty in the state. According to the Las Vegas Sun, the bill orders the legislative auditor to “compare the costs of prosecution and appeals of capital cases versus non-death penalty cases” and to examine the cost of “defense lawyers, juries, psychiatric evaluations, appellate and post-conviction proceedings.” The bill is awaiting final passage in the Nevada State Assembly.

Concern for excessive costs of the death penalty has also influenced the decisions of state lawmakers in Illinois, New Jersey, and New Mexico to abolish the death penalty. Between 2003 and 2010, the State of Illinois directed over $100 million from its Capital Litigation Trust Fund towards capital litigation. The 2011 law that abolished the Illinois death penalty provides that funds saved by the repeal to be directed towards services for victims families and law enforcement training.

Several other states are currently evaluating the financial and moral costs of the death penalty. In 2010, Indiana’s Attorney General asked state legislators to reconsider their support for the death penalty because of its impact on state and county budgets. Over the last three years, Maryland’s Governor has argued in favor of abolishing the state’s death penalty because death penalty trials cost Maryland taxpayers $186 million between 1978 and 1999. The average Maryland death penalty case costs $3 million, about $2 million more than cases in which the death penalty was not sought.

In 2009, state legislatures in Maryland, Nebraska, Colorado, Montana, New Hampshire, Washington and Kansas each considered legislation to repeal the death penalty. Central to the political debates continuing to take place in those states is the cost of death penalty trials, post-conviction litigation, and the housing of death row inmates.