In these economic times, there has been significant media coverage of various states considering the banning of the death penalty — not on moral grounds or arguments about its ineffectiveness in crime prevention, but on the simple argument that it costs too much.   That’s right:  it is cheaper to keep someone incarcerated for the rest of their lives than it is to kill them, ending their life on a set calendar date. 

How can this be?  How is the death penalty so costly?

First, asAmnestyUSA points out, there are the trial costs.  When a prosecutor decides to seek the death penalty, the cost of litigation skyrockets.  Discovery — investigation of the crime — becomes more intensive and therefore, more expensive.  There is a heavier motion practice in a death penalty case.  And, remember, once the death penalty is on the table, attorneys are preparing for not one but two trials — first, the conviction phase (deciding guilt or innocence) and then the penalty phase (determining the sentence). 

That second trial, the sentencing phase of the case, can be extensive in preparation and presentation.  Aggravating circumstances must be presented to the factfinder with evidence that is authenticated and admissible.  Mitigating factors must likewise be provided to the jury.  Often, expert testimony will be provided by several leaders in their fields (scientific or forensic experts, mental health experts, etc.).  Death cannot be imposed upon someone who has been found guilty of a capital crime without all due process efforts being exhausted.

Second, there are the appeals that must follow any complicated capital punishment case.  Post-conviction proceedings will be filed.  These will take time.  Appellate courts will grade the papers of the trial court to insure that the law has been followed.   One growing concern is insuring that the defendant had effective assistance of counsel during the conviction phase.  Sometimes, appellate courts will be asked to consider the revelation of new evidence or the reconsideration of old evidence based upon new technology (such as new DNA testing procedures).   The appellate process in death penalty cases is time consuming and expensive, as well.

What kind of numbers are we talking about here, in terms of cost?

The Death Penalty Information Center has compiled a list of studies done regarding various states in the country, and how much they might save annually if they banned capital punishment.  According to the DPIC, Florida would save $51,000,000 each year and California would save a whopping $125,500,000 each year.

That’s annually.   Which means – using the DPIC numbers — that over a five year period, Florida would save $255,000,000 — that’s a quarter of a billion dollars — and California would save an astounding $627,500,000 during the same five years.  

Surely this practical, basic argument merits serious consideration by even the most ardent supporter of capital punishment.   Especially for a state that is currently handing out IOUs ….