Does the death penalty cost more than it’s worth? (Guest Post: Matt Simmons)

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by May 27th, 2014 Posted in

Photo by Ken Piorkowski used under a Creative Commons license.

Matt Simmons is a former OK Policy intern. He recently completed his MA in American history at the University of Tulsa, and he is currently pursuing a PhD in history at the University of Florida. He can be found on Twitter at .

Last month Clayton Lockett was executed by the state of Oklahoma. It did not go as planned. Rather than succumbing quickly to an intravenously administered lethal drug cocktail, Lockett expired from a heart attack after 43 minutes. Governor Fallin suspended further executions pending the results of an investigation into execution procedures.

More than just an investigation into execution procedures is needed, however. Questions of morality and justice surrounding the death penalty will continue to be debated, but it’s worth looking at the fiscal costs and benefits to taxpayers. Our legal system tries to be absolutely certain before sentencing someone to death (although the system is still not fool-proof). As a result, death penalty cases require significantly more time and money than other cases.

How much more? This has been examined in several death penalty states. In 2014 the Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations completed a studyof the financial costs of the death penalty. This study demonstrates that death penalty cases took longer to process than non-death penalty cases. Based on a sample of 251 defendants over a fifteen year period, the study found that death penalty cases took, on average, 7 months longer during the trial phase than non-death penalty cases. Additionally, based on a sample of 105 defendants over a thirteen year period, the study also found that the appeals process for death penalty cases took an average of 8,000 hours versus 180 hours for non-death penalty cases.

In 2013, two scholars published an article in the University of Denver Law Review analyzing the cost of the death penalty in the state of Colorado. This study found that death penalty cases took more time to process than non-death penalty cases based on time spent in court. When the state pursued the death penalty, it took 148 days on average to reach a verdict versus 25 days when the state pursued a verdict of life without parole. Based on a sample of 154 cases,  the entire process, from charging to sentencing, took 526 days for life without parole cases versus 1902 days for death penalty cases, almost four times longer. The authors of this study concluded that, “the death penalty imposes a major cost without yielding any measurable benefit.”

In 2010, the Indiana Legislative Services Agency created a Fiscal Impact Statement for the Indiana General Assembly. The agency’s analysis was based on a sample of 92 murder cases over a seven-year period. This analysis looked at defense, jury, and Department of Corrections costs for death penalty cases versus life without parole cases. It found that in cases in where the death penalty was sought and granted, the average cost for trial and appeals was $449,887. In cases in which life without parole was sought and granted, the average cost for trial and appeals was $42,658. Additionally, the study found that even though executions are often touted as a way of reducing overall incarceration costs, these savings were more than offset by the increased trial and appeals costs of death penalty cases. 

No such studies have been conducted in Oklahoma. Earlier this year state Senator Constance Johnson introduced Senate Bill No. 717, which called for the creation of a task force to study the costs and deterrent effect of the death penalty in Oklahoma.  The bill never made it through the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Death penalty supporters often cite the presumed deterrent effect of capital punishment on murder rates. Yet in a recent survey of 79 leading criminologists, 90 percent said the research shows capital punishment is no more effective as a deterrent than life imprisonment. Additionally, a 2012 survey of the current research on the death penalty and deterrence found that there was insufficient evidence to support any assertions that the threat of the death penalty reduces homicide rates. In fact, states without the death penalty consistently have lower homicide rates than those with the death penalty. The research shows no correlation between executions and a decrease in murders in Oklahoma or in the United States. With much higher costs and no discernable benefit of deterrence due to the death penalty, this form of punishment clearly fails a cost-benefit analysis.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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