Costs

NEW VOICES: Judge Calls Ohio Death Penalty Costs 'Astronomical'

County Judge Michael P. Donnelly, a member of Ohio's Death Penalty Task Force appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, recently called the costs of capital trials "astronomical." He went on to say that a county's budget may be a factor in decisions to seek the death penalty: “[W]ith 88 different prosecutors who have complete discretion on whether to pursue it or not, and you have to draw the inference that, in some counties, it’s not pursued because it’s just not economically feasible.” For example, Summit County is facing a 15% overrun of its court indigent defense budget because of five cases in which prosecutors sought the death penalty this year. The most recent capital trial cost the county $102,715, lasted nearly two months, and ended in a sentence of life without parole. Court officials said an aggravated murder case without death penalty charges typically costs $15,000 to $20,000 and lasts only two weeks. The judge added, “There’s no way you can look at the way [the death penalty is] applied in Ohio and draw the conclusion that it’s fair, or that it’s accomplishing what it purports to do — and that is, deliver the most severe punishment to the worst of the worst. It’s just not taking place.”

NEW VOICES: Once a Supporter, Colorado Governor Explains Opposition to Death Penalty

In a recent interview, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper stated his opposition to the death penalty, citing the views of murder victims' family members and the high cost of implementing capital punishment. Hickenlooper said he had supported the death penalty until he learned more about it. “My whole life I was in favor of the death penalty," he said, "But then you get all this information: it costs 10 times, maybe 15 times more money to execute someone than to put someone in prison for life without parole. There’s no deterrence to having capital punishment. And I don’t know about you, but when I get new facts, I’ll change my opinion. I didn’t know all of this stuff." In 2013, he granted an indefinite reprieve to death row inmate Nathan Dunlap, saying, “If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless.” Because of the general basis for Hickenlooper's grant of a stay, it would appear to put a hold on all executions while he is governor.

NEW VOICES: Former Oklahoma Warden Says Death Penalty Fails on Many Fronts

Randy Workman (pictured) is a former warden of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, where he oversaw 32 executions. In a recent interview, he was critical of many aspects of capital punishment. He said the death penalty failed the victims' families and wasted money: "We spend millions of dollars on these cases and going through the process and the end result is the family, do they feel vindicated? I’d say 90% of the time the people I’ve seen don’t." He shared the advice he gave to a murder victim's mother (a relative) who asked for his thoughts on whether to seek the death penalty: "I said here’s the deal, if you get the death penalty and you[’re] successful, you're going to spend the next eight to 12 years back and forth in court and you’re going to relive your son’s death, because he has all these appeals....I’ve seen some mothers that had some serious broken hearts that said this doesn’t end it for me.This isn’t justice to me. This doesn’t do it.” He also said the threat of execution does not deter people from committing murder: “I can tell you the people that I’ve executed, when they committed crimes, they didn’t, wasn’t thinking about the death penalty and a lot of them were high, or a lot of them in the generation of people we’re dealing with today don’t have a lot of forethought about the end result.” Workman said he still supported the death penalty, but would not want to "push the button" on the chance the defendant might be innocent: "I would never take that chance with my life,” he said.

NEW VOICES: Another Oregon Chief Justice Questions the Death Penalty

Three former Chief Justices of the Oregon Supreme Court have recently called for an end to the death penalty in their state. Retired Chief Justice Wallace P. Carson, Jr. (l.), was the most recent Justice to call for a change: "In my opinion, the exceptional cost of death penalty cases and the seemingly haphazard selection of which cases deserve the death penalty outweigh any perceived public benefit of this sanction," Carson said. "The fairly recent addition of a 'true life' (no parole) penalty should reasonably substitute for any deterrence value that some may claim that the death penalty provides. It is time for a change." In 2013, former Chief Justice Paul J. DeMuniz, said, "The death penalty is getting a 'pass' from legislative scrutiny, when looking for ways to trim Oregon’s budget to fund starving schools and public safety. We currently have fewer state police today than we did in 1960." Retired Chief Justice Edwin J. Petersen also spoke out against the death penalty in 2013, saying "Under our system, fairness is difficult to achieve. Mistakes are made. The  system sets up the possibility of a fatal mistake--killing an innocent person."

COSTS: Kansas Study Examines High Cost of Death Penalty Cases

Defending a death penalty case costs about four times as much as defending a case where the death penalty is not sought, according to a new study by the Kansas Judicial Council. Examining 34 potential death-penalty cases from 2004-2011, the study found that defense costs for death penalty trials averaged $395,762 per case, compared to $98,963 per case when the death penalty was not sought. Costs incurred by the trial court showed a similar disparity: $72,530 for cases with the death penalty; $21,554 for those without. Even in cases that ended in a guilty plea and did not go to trial, cases where the death penalty was sought incurred about twice the costs for both defense ($130,595 v. $64,711) and courts ($16,263 v. $7,384), compared to cases where death was not sought. The time spent on death cases was also much higher. Jury trials averaged 40.13 days in cases where the death penalty was being sought, but only 16.79 days when it was not an option. Justices of the Kansas Supreme Court assigned to write opinions estimated they spent 20 times more hours on death penalty appeals than on non-death appeals. The Department of Corrections said housing prisoners on death row cost more than twice as much per year ($49,380) as for prisoners in the general population ($24,690). 

COSTS: Idaho Study Finds Death Penalty Cases Are Rare, Lengthy, & Costly

A new, but limited, study of the costs of the death penalty in Idaho found that capital cases are more costly and take much more time to resolve than non-capital cases. One measure of death-penalty costs was reflected in the time spent by attorneys handling appeals. The State Appellate Public Defenders office spent about 44 times more time on a typical death penalty appeal than on a life sentence appeal (almost 8,000 hours per capital defendant compared to about 180 hours per non-death penalty defendant). Capital cases with trials took 20.5 months to reach a conclusion while non-capital cases with trials took 13.5 months. The study was commissioned by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee and performed by the Office of Performance Evaluations.The study also noted how infrequently the death penalty was applied in Idaho: of the 251 defendants who were charged with first-degree murder since 1998, the death penalty was sought against 55 (22%) of them, and just 7 were sentenced to death. More than half of the 40 people sentenced to death since 1977 have received lesser sentences after their death sentences were overturned.

NEW VOICES: The Conservative Case for Death Penalty Repeal in Kentucky

David Floyd, a Republican state representative in Kentucky, recently introduced a bill to repeal the state's death penalty, arguing that the law was incompatible with conservative values. Writing in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Floyd said his religious views initially caused him to oppose the death penalty, but he made a broader pragmatic case for repeal from a conservative perspective. He pointed to values such as respect for life, limiting government power, and cutting wasteful spending, as reasons to support abolition. He said, "Capital punishment in Kentucky is a broken government program that risks killing the wrongly convicted, risks abuse of power, wastes resources, is arbitrary and unjust." He concluded, "Conservatives must work with people across the political spectrum to expose the many deficiencies of Kentucky’s system of capital punishment. And then we must repeal it." Read the op-ed below.

COSTS: Death Penalty Cases Can Mean Bankruptcy for Small Counties

Washington Cost Chart
Click to enlarge

County administrators in Washington state say a single death penalty case could cause bankruptcy in their county. Court costs are paid at a county level, meaning a lengthy and expensive death penalty trial can seriously threaten the county's ability to pay for other priorities. Jim Jones, the former president of the Washington County Administrative Association, said several counties told him, “If we had a death penalty case, and had to pay $1 million (in legal costs), we’d go bankrupt.” If the death penalty is not sought, such cases cost a lot less. In the late 1990's, Okanogan County was forced to put a hold on all equipment purchases, including the replacement of worn-out police cars, in order to pay for one death penalty prosecution. Last year, the $1 million cost of a death penalty retrial caused a "budget emergency" in Clallam County. Two months into the process, the prosecutor decided to remove the death penalty as a possible sentence. Washington has a fund to defray "extraordinary criminal justice costs," but counties typically receive only a small fraction of the reimbursement they request. 

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