Just or Not, Cost of Death Penalty Is a Killer for State Budgets

Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes.

That is the broad assessment of a growing number of studies taking a cold, hard look at how much the death penalty costs in the 35 states that still have it.

Forget justice, morality, the possibility of killing an innocent man or any of the traditional arguments that have been part of the public debate over the death penalty. The new one is this:

The cost of killing killers is killing us.

"There have been studies of costs of the death penalty before, but we have never seen the same reaction that we are seeing now," says Richard C. Dieter of the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center. "Perhaps it is because governments are looking for ways to cut costs, and this is easier than school closings or layoffs, but it sure has hit a nerve."

In the last year, four states — Kansas, Colorado, Montana and Connecticut — have wrestled with the emotional and politically charged issue. In each state there was a major shift toward rejection of the death penalty and narrow defeats for legislation that would have abolished it. In Connecticut, both houses actually voted in favor of a bill that would have banned executions, but the governor vetoed it.

Unlike past debates over executions, the current battles are fueled largely by the costs the death penalty imposes on states. The numbers, according to the studies, are staggering.

Overall, according to Dieter, the studies have uniformly and conservatively shown that a death-penalty trial costs $1 million more than one in which prosecutors seek life without parole. That expense is being reexamined in the current budget crisis, with some state legislators advocating a moratorium on death-penalty trials until the economy improves.

An Urban Institute study of Maryland's experience with the death penalty found that a single death-penalty trial cost $1.9 million more than a non-death-penalty trial. Since 1978, the cost to taxpayers for the five executions the state carried out was $37.2 million dollars — each.

Since 1983, taxpayers in New Jersey have paid $253 million more for death penalty trials than they would have paid for trials not seeking execution — but the Garden State has yet to execute a single convict. Of the 197 capital cases tried in New Jersey, there have been 60 death sentences, the report said, and 50 of the those convictions were overturned. There currently are 10 men on the state's death row.

A recent Duke University study of North Carolina's death penalty costs found that the state could save $11 million a year by substituting life in prison for the death penalty. An earlier Duke study found that the state spent $2.1 million more on a death penalty case than on one seeking a life sentence.

The Tennessee Comptroller of the Currency recently estimated that death penalty trials cost an average of 48 percent more than trials in which prosecutors sought life sentences.

It was much the same story in Kansas. A state-sponsored study found that death penalty cases cost 70 percent more than murder trials that didn't seek the death penalty.

A Florida study found the state could cut its costs by $51 million simply by eliminating the death penalty.

But no state matches the dilemma of California, where almost 700 inmates are sitting on death row and, according to Natasha Minsker, author of a new report by the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, few will ever actually be put to death. In fact, she says, the odds against being executed are so great, murder suspects in California actually seek the death penalty because it is the only way to get a single room in the state's prison system.

"Only 1 percent of people sentenced to death in California in the last 30 years have been executed," Minsker said. "The death penalty in California is purely a symbolic sentence."

Her study found that the cash-strapped state could immediately save $1 billion by eliminating the death penalty and imposing sentences of life without parole. The alternative, if the cash-strapped state keeps the death penalty: spend $400 million to build a new death-row prison to house the growing number of prisoners.

Minsker said just keeping prisoners on death row costs $90,000 more per prisoner per year than regular confinement, because the inmates are housed in single rooms and the prisons are staffed with extra guards. That money alone would cut $63 million from the state budget. But other savings would ripple through every step of the criminal justice system as well, from court costs to subsidized spending for defense attorney and investigation expenses.

Will the economic slump and every state's need to cut budgets have an impact? Death penalty opponents say the recession has given their effort a new, non-political reason for abolition that resonates on both sides of the debate. But Professor Paul Cassell, the Ronald N. Boyce Presidential Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Utah and a death penalty expert, says that major changes are not likely to occur soon.

"You can make the argument that it is cheaper not to have the death penalty" he said, but that is not what the death penalty is about.

The death penalty "provides a sense of justice to the system, is a just punishment for murder and has a deterrent effect on crime," he said. "Besides, the amount of money saved is not that big compared to what the entire justice system spends."

"Moreover," he said, "polls show that 70 to 80 percent of people support the death penalty. And that isn't going to change."