No, Life In Prison is Not More Expensive Than The Death Penalty

No, Life In Prison is Not More Expensive Than The Death Penalty October 18, 2018
Vial With Pentobarbital Used For Euthanasia And Lethal Injection In A Hospital – Licenses to Courtney Heard by Adobe Stock.

This is part two in a series designed to debunk the arguments for capital punishment. Read the previous part here. Read the other parts here.

In 2014, Washington State saw an unprecedented 3 capital cases being tried at the same time. Christopher Monfort was being tried for the murder of a police officer. The state shelled out more than $4 million just to pay his lawyer. Joseph McEnroe and Michele Anderson were being tried at the same time, for multiple murders. Their defense costs had risen to near $4.9 million.

It’s important to note, these costs were for their defense alone. This does not take into account the courtroom costs, the court staff, the prosecution costs, or housing, feeding and meeting the basic needs of the defendants while in pretrial custody.

In February 2014, Governor Jay Inslee called a moratorium on executions in Washington State. He cited rising costs and illustrated an arbitrary system that cherry-picked those cases which capital cases based solely on county budget at the time.

In essence, the State of Washington was in the business of assessing how many people it could afford to kill. Not exactly something you would associate with a civilized and humane society, is it?

Death penalty supporters often claim that putting a man to death is far less expensive than it is to keep a man in prison for life. This seems reasonable enough. During a life sentence, the state puts up the dough to keep him alive: his food, his hygienic needs, his health care. Correctional officers need to be employed to uphold strict maximum security protocol. Doctors, lawyers, wardens, counselors and janitorial staff all have salaries to pay as well. There is no arguing that prison is expensive, but the idea that a life sentence is somehow more expensive than the death penalty is simply not based in fact. The death penalty is significantly more expensive than life without parole. There are several reasons for this.

The first reason is the trial and pretrial period of a capital case. Due to the irreversible nature of capital punishment, the system is set up to be thorough, so as to protect the innocent from being wrongfully executed. This means trial times are longer, with lengthier jury selection phases (sometimes months long), special motions and a more in-depth look at the evidence. The investigation into the evidence is more thorough and often more expert witnesses will be heard from. It means longer deliberation times for juries that often include a few people who don’t like the idea of putting a human being to death. Sentencing is completely separate from the conviction phase of the trial and incurs a comparable cost to a trial. If the defendant is sentenced to anything less than the death penalty, those costs are not recoverable. The state still pays for the capital trial and sentencing, even when a capital sentence is not reached.

Another costly part of a capital case is the appeals process. The death penalty is final. You cannot correct it if the punishment was doled out by mistake. Therefore, the defendant in capital cases has a right to an appeal, automatically. In some states, the appeal is mandatory and in others, the defendant has the right to choose whether they will go ahead with their appeal.

Most appellate court systems across the USA do not have public defenders on the payroll, mostly due to lack of funding. This leads to the state footing the bill for a private defense lawyer during the appeals process. This can cost upwards of half a million dollars, just for the defense lawyer during appeals alone.

The appeal process for a condemned offender is taken to the highest court and treated as thoroughly and carefully as the original trial. It can incur as many costs as the first trial.

Housing men and women who have been sentenced to die is also more costly than life without parole. First, there needs to be a death row that must be maintained, guarded and kept separate from the general population. The thinking here is that segregating death row inmates from the general prison population will protect both the condemned prisoners and those in gen-pop. It is thought that a man sentenced to death has little to live for, and nothing to lose, putting the general population in danger should he walk amongst them. On the flip side, some capital crimes are so heinous, the general population might turn on the condemned man putting his life in danger. That sounds strange, considering he’s more or less there to be killed anyway, but consider the possibility that the original verdict was wrong, and through his appeals process, a DNA test clears his name. If he’s been killed in prison by a bunch of gen-pop vigilantes, well, then an innocent man has died.

Segregation is considered necessary and requires a whole block to itself. Due to the isolating nature of the cells, more correctional officers are needed, an additional yard is needed and special arrangements for eating and showering are made.

The execution process itself is also expensive. The drugs alone cost little more than a hundred dollars, but safeguarding the correctional officers and medical staff has become costly. Special procedures are usually put in place so that several people initiate the injection process, in order that no single person is sure their action alone is what led to a death. It’s thought that this protects the prison staff from walking away with severe PTSD from having to kill a human being. It doesn’t work. They still do.

More and more medical staff are pulling out of the procedure as time goes on, though, as they feel it violates their Hippocratic oath. The task of finding a willing and qualified professional to take part in an execution is becoming more difficult and more costly.

Studies have found repeatedly that a capital case costs, on average, one million dollars more than that of non capital cases. In Kansas, a death penalty case costs 70% more than a non-capital case. In Tennessee, it’s 48%. In Maryland, it’s 3 times the cost of a regular case. According to Amnesty,

In California the current system costs $137 million per year; it would cost $11.5 million for a system without the death penalty.

The sheer and crippling cost of the capital system cuts into funding for victim’s services. It takes cash away from education. It reduces the average American’s access to health care. It cuts into crime prevention spending… prevention, which would help stop people from becoming victims in the first place. It reduces the funding for law enforcement, which jeopardizes your safety and creates more victims of crime. Most importantly, it reduces the ability, through lack of funding, of investigators to solve abhorrent crimes and get dangerous people off the street.

Some have suggested that the costs of the capital system can be reduced. One option is to cut short the appeals process, but even without the automatic appeals process, capital cases cost several times what regular cases cost because of the lengthier trials. Plus, with some studies finding that 1 in every 25 death sentences handed out is given to an innocent man or women, the appeals process is necessary and absolutely must be thorough.

A capital system, at it’s best, is either brutally and cripplingly expensive, or it’s going to victimize a lot of innocent men and women. You can’t have a capital system that is swift, inexpensive and fair. The idea of such a thing is as absurd as the resurrection.

Washington state recently realized this and did the right thing by ending the capital system in their state.

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This is part 3 in a series written to debunk the arguments for the death penalty. Read the other parts here. Follow me on Twitter to be notified when the next part comes out. Click here.

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  • Aloha

    I see your point, but I’m not sure it’s fair to add in the costs of litigating a capital case. It should be that people have just as much possibility of litigating a life in prison. These are both very serious punishments, and you’d want to be sure that the criminal was indeed guilty and indeed deserved it. So a person being sentenced to life in prison might want to litigate and appeal this sentence as well.

  • Jim Jones

    “Give a law enforcement professional like me that $250 million, and I’ll show you how to reduce crime. The death penalty isn’t anywhere on my list.”

    — James Abbott, Police Chief, West Orange, New Jersey

  • Jim Jones

    In practice, that doesn’t happen. The state really does cut corners to get convictions, one of them being plea bargains.

    Look at the West Memphis Three. One of them was really in bad shape after his time in prison. The other two agreed to plead guilty to something so they could all get out. This saved the state the cost of three lawsuits and the police the cost of really investigating to find out who did kill the little boy.

    It’s a disgrace all around, but this is how the ‘system’ ‘works’.

  • igotbanned999

    I’ve argued this with my mom but she insists that it shouldn’t cost more than the price of a single bullet for each criminal.

  • MadScientist1023

    I guess your mom doesn’t care too much about whether innocent people get executed.

  • igotbanned999

    According to her they should pay for their own lawyers, and if they can’t, that’s just too bad for them.

  • Martin Penwald

    I wonder if she was the commenter on the previous related article.

  • MadScientist1023

    That’s appalling. She doesn’t know much about how the criminal justice system actually works, does she?

  • Flint8ball

    I am in favor of the death penalty. But as you described above, the process is too cumbersome and costly. Obviously, there are wrongly sentenced individuals in our justice system, and it will never be perfect. There’s a balance point in the system that needs to be shifted in order to better manage cost while still providing opportunities for appeals.

  • igotbanned999

    Everything she knows she learned from Fox News

  • MadScientist1023

    That’ll do it.
    Maybe you could get her to listen to the podcast Serial. That was pretty eye-opening. It truly horrified me when one of the detectives they interviewed said that his investigation was considered a pretty good one.
    Adam Ruins Everything also had some really interesting episodes on prisons, forensic science, and the criminal justice system.
    And of course there are all the wonderful articles Godless Mom has written 😉

  • Terry

    I’m an atheist and a lifelong democrat, but in some cases I support the death penalty, especially if it’s for Dolt 45, or one of his MAGAt followers!

  • Terry

    I know how you feel, in my family 90% are Dolt 45 MAGAts, which I don’t speak to anymore!

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “No, Life In Prison is Not More Expensive Than The Death Penalty”

    Really? How much does it cost to keep someone incarcerated for a year?

    Compare that to how much it costs to execute someone. The drugs used for lethal injection can’t be THAT expensive.

    There will be a huge difference.

    China goes as far as to execute by firing squad & bill the family of the murderer for the cost of the bullets.

    “It’s important to note, these costs were for their defense alone. This does not take into account the courtroom costs, the court staff, the prosecution costs, or housing, feeding and meeting the basic needs of the defendants while in pretrial custody.”

    It is important to note that the courtroom costs, the court staff, & the prosecution costs would be spent regardless.

    It is important to note that the costs of housing, feeding and meeting the basic needs of the defendants while in pretrial custody apply to all people being held in custody before trial; it does not apply only to people being charged with murder.

    “Another costly part of a capital case is the appeals process. The death penalty is final. You cannot correct it if the punishment was doled out by mistake. ”

    Using that argument, it should mean that any instance where the guilt of the person is not in question at all ( there are such cases from time to time), the appeals process is no longer relevant.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “Washington state recently realized this and did the right thing by ending the capital system in their state.”

    You haven’t presented a convincing argument that this is a statement of fact & not a statement of opinion.

  • Pennybird

    There are two reasons I oppose the death penalty. The obvious one of is that we are imperfect and prejudiced no matter how hard we try otherwise, and not everyone tries to be otherwise. Some of those people end up at high levels of government. Jeff Sessions I’m looking at you and your little dog Joe Arpaio too.

    And the second reason is that it’s too easy a way out. I came to this conclusion the day that Timothy McVeigh was executed about six or seven years after committing the most heinous crime on American soil at that time. He only had to spend a few years behind bars. My hope was that he’d live long enough to outgrow his violent brattiness and regret his horror. Not a guarantee, but failing that, being stuck behind bars, bored for decades would be a more fitting punishment than letting him out of his predicament early on.

  • Pennybird

    Plus prosecutors’ reputations are on the line, especially in areas where they have to be elected to the job. Quick and easy convictions are the name of the game for them, justice be damned.

  • Jim Jones
  • Pennybird


  • Jim Jones

    Yes. Their most powerful evidence was, “He might have been able to do it”.

    And a ‘judge’ convicted him. In a 3 day ‘trial’.

  • Pennybird

    Question marks for a link to nowhere. You might want to double check that.

  • Jim Jones

    It works OK AFAIK.

  • Nathan Bray

    Just FYi and for the people who will read this later she did link the sources for her quotes and most of them are government commitees or bodies like
    The Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Office of Research. Just check out her Further Reading section for link and more info. It amazes me the number of people who just read something they agree/disagree with and just assume a random blog online proves there point better than budget figures which lay the quoted costs out.