Does the Death Penalty Cost Less Than Life in Prison without Parole?


General Reference (not clearly pro or con)
Frank Zimring, JD, William G. Simon Professor of Law and Wolfen Distinguished Scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, as quoted in a Mar. 6, 2005 Los Angeles Times article titled "Death Row Often Means a Long Life; California Condemns Many Murderers, But Few Are Ever Executed," stated:

"What we are paying for at such great cost is essentially our own ambivalence about capital punishment. We try to maintain the apparatus of state killing and another apparatus that almost guarantees that it won't happen. The public pays for both sides."

Mar. 6, 2005 - Frank Zimring, JD 

The Office of Legislative Research for the Connecticut General Assembly, in its Apr. 13, 2000 study titled "Comparison of Capital Punishment Costs in Texas and Connecticut," concluded:

"There are several problems involved in trying to determine the cost of a capital case. First, there is a wide variety of costs associated with capital cases. These include costs for prosecuting and defense attorneys, interpreters, expert witnesses, court reporters, psychiatrists, secretaries, and jury consultants.

Another problem is the length and complexity of the process. Cases tend to last several years and can pass through three possible phases. The first phase includes state trial court (two trials - one to determine guilt, the other for sentence), state Supreme Court, and possible appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. The second phase is the state habeas corpus (post-conviction process) and appeals. The final phase is federal habeas corpus, which includes appeals to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and to the US Supreme Court...

A third problem is the way states budget money for entities that are involved with capital cases. For example, Texas and Connecticut allocate specific sums to their judicial departments. It is difficult to separate the costs each department incurs for capital cases from those for other cases. From a data-gathering standpoint, Texas presents yet another problem. Each county (there are 254) must bear the costs of its capital cases. It is extremely difficult to get data from the counties. Dallas is the only county from which we received partial data, and we were unable to determine whether they are representative of other counties."

Apr. 13, 2000 - Office of Legislative Research for the Connecticut General Assembly 



PRO (yes)

Dudley Sharp, Death Penalty Resources Director of Justice For All (JFA), in an Oct. 1, 1997 Justice for All presentation titled "Death Penalty and Sentencing Information," wrote:

"Many opponents present, as fact, that the cost of the death penalty is so expensive (at least $2 million per case?), that we must choose life without parole ('LWOP') at a cost of $1 million for 50 years. Predictably, these pronouncements may be entirely false. JFA estimates that LWOP cases will cost $1.2 million - $3.6 million more than equivalent death penalty cases.

There is no question that the up front costs of the death penalty are significantly higher than for equivalent LWOP cases. There also appears to be no question that, over time, equivalent LWOP cases are much more expensive... than death penalty cases. Opponents ludicrously claim that the death penalty costs, over time, 3-10 times more than LWOP."

Oct. 1, 1997 - Dudley Sharp 



Chris Clem, JD, Attorney at Samples, Jennings, Ray & Clem, PLLC, in a Jan. 31, 2002 statement in response to a press release about the cost of capital cases as reported by the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing, stated:

"Executions do not have to cost that much. We could hang them and re-use the rope. No cost! Or we could use firing squads and ask for volunteer firing squad members who would provide their own guns and ammunition. Again, no cost."

Jan. 31, 2002 - Chris Clem, JD 



Gary D. Beatty, JD, a Florida Assistant State Attorney, in his Dec. 1, 1997 article, "The Next Time Someone Says the Death Penalty Costs More Than Life in Prison, Show Them This Article," available at www.fed-soc.org, stated:

"If the mutiple layers of appeal are pursued in an ethical, and fiscally responsible manner, execution is less costly than warehousing a murderer for life."

Dec. 1, 1997 - Gary D. Beatty, JD 



Edwin H. Sutherland, PhD, late President of the American Sociological Society, and Donald R. Cressey, PhD, late Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the 1974 revised edition of their book titled Criminology, wrote:

"It is not cheaper to keep a criminal confined, because most of the time he will appeal just as much causing as many costs as a convict under death sentence. Being alive and having nothing better to do, he will spend his time in prison conceiving of ever-new habeas corpus petitions, which being unlimited, in effect cannot be rejected as res judicata. The cost is higher."

1974 - Donald R. Cressey, PhD 
Edwin H. Sutherland, PhD 




[Editor's note: Despite many hours of research, ProCon.org was unable to find additional clear and compelling Pro statements from authoritative sources for this question as of Aug. 9, 2012.]




CON (no)

Charles M. Harris, JD, Senior Judge of the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Florida, published the following in an opinion piece for The Gainesville Sun, on Apr. 18, 2012, available at gainesville.com:

"[D]eath by execution is excessively expensive. Most people who support the death penalty believe it is more cost effective than life in prison. Perhaps at one time, when executions were swift and sure, this may have been the case. It is not now. Most people knowledgeable about the subject will agree that the delay now built into the system, more trial preparation, much longer time to get to trial, much longer jury selections and trials, much more complicated and far more frequent appeals, and continuous motions, have increased the cost of capital punishment so that it is now many times the cost of keeping a prisoner in prison for life."

Apr. 18, 2012 - Charles M. Harris, JD 



Jon B. Gould, PhD, Professor of Justice, Law, and Society at American University, and Lisa Greenman, JD, Attorney for the Maryland Public Defender Organization, submitted the following in the "Report to the Committe on Defender Services Judicial Conference of the United States Update on the Cost and Quality of Defense Representation in Federal Death Penalty Cases" in Sep. 2010, available at www.uscourts.gov:

"The median amount of $353,185 for authorized cases [of the federal death penalty]... indicates that cases in which a capital prosecution was authorized cost almost eight times as much as those death-eligible cases that were not authorized... there is no mistaking the vast increase in cost when the Department of Justice decides to authorize a capital prosecution."

Sep. 2010 - Jon B. Gould, JD, PhD 
Lisa Greenman, JD 



Richard C. Dieter, MS, JD, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the following on June 7, 2010, in his testimony before the Pennsylvania Senate Government Management and Cost Study Commission, available at www.deathpenaltyinfo.org:

"The death penalty is the most expensive part of the system on a per-offender basis. Millions are spent to achieve a single death sentence that, even if imposed, is unlikely to be carried out. Thus money that the police desperately need for more effective law enforcement may be wasted on the death penalty…

The principal reason why the death penalty is so expensive can be summed up in one phrase: ‘death is different…' Every stage of a capital case is more time-consuming and expensive than in a typical criminal case. Jury selection takes much longer; more mental health and forensic experts will be needed; two trials will be required - one for guilt and one for sentencing; and the appeals will be far more complex, focusing on both the conviction and the death sentence. Two attorneys are usually appointed for the defense, so that issues of guilt and sentencing can be separately explored. The prosecution has to respond with equal or greater resources since they have the burden of proof...There is no reason the death penalty should be immune from reconsideration, along with other wasteful, expensive programs that no longer make sense."

June 7, 2010 - Richard C. Dieter, MS, JD 



Death Penalty Focus, an anti-capital punishment advocacy organization, wrote in the article "The High Cost of the Death Penalty," available at www.deathpenalty.org (accessed Aug. 7, 2012):

"The death penalty is much more expensive than life without parole because the Constitution requires a long and complex judicial process for capital cases. This process is needed in order to ensure that innnocent men and woman are not executed for crimes they did not commit, and even with these protections the risk of executing an innocent person can not be completely eliminated.

If the death penalty was replaced with a sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole, which costs millions less and also ensures that the public is protected while eliminating the risk of an irreversible mistake, the money saved could be spent on programs that actually improve the communities in which we live... More than 3500 men and woman have received this sentence in California since 1978 and NOT ONE has been released, except those few individuals who were able to prove their innocence."

Aug. 15, 2011 - Death Penalty Focus 



John Roman, PhD, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute and Executive Director of the District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute, et al., wrote the following in their Dec. 15, 2009 study “Reassessing the Cost of the Death Penalty Using Quasi-Experimental Methods: Evidence from Maryland,” published in American Law and Economics Association:

"Fourteen studies have estimated the costs of capital punishment, including one study of the federal death penalty and 13 state- or county-level studies. Each study concludes that the presence of capital punishment results in additional costs. However, there is substantial variation in the cost estimates. Among the five studies that compare the cost of a death sentence with the cost of a capital-eligible case in which no death notice is filed, the average (additional) cost per case is $650,000, but the estimates range from about $100,000 to more than $1.7 million…

Cases receiving a death notice are approximately $517,000 more costly during the trial phase, $147,000 more costly during the penalty phase, and $201,000 more costly during the appellate phase than a capital eligible case where no death notice was filed…. On average, a death notice adds about $1,000,000 in costs over the duration of a case."

Dec. 15, 2009 - John Roman, PhD 



Eight members of the 23-member California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice study titled "Report and Recommendations on the Administration of the Death Penalty in California," signed a June 30, 2008 supplement indicating their personal objections to the death penalty. Those eight members were Diane Bellas, JD, Alameda County Public Defender; Rabbi Allen I. Freehling, Executive Director at the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission; Michael Hersek, JD, California State Public Defender; Bill Ong Hing, JD Professor at UC Davis School of Law; Michael P. Judge, JD, Los Angeles County Public Defender; Michael Laurence, JD, Executive Director of the Habeas Corpus Resource Center; John Moulds, JD, US Magistrate Judge of the US District Court – Eastern District of California; and Douglas Ring, Businessman Founder of The Ring Group. The supplement stated in part:

"The resources that go into a death penalty case are enormous. The pursuit of execution adds millions at each phase of the process, from trial, to appeal, and habeas proceedings. For example, a death penalty trial costs counties at least $1.1 million more than a conventional murder trial. The state spends at least an additional $117 million a year on capital punishment, about half of it on prison expenses that exceed the usual costs of housing inmates and the rest on arguing and judging death penalty appeals.

The costs mount because death penalty trials and appeals take far longer than others, involve more lawyers, investigators and expert witnesses, and displace other cases from courtrooms. In contrast, adopting a maximum penalty of life without possibility of parole (for which there is growing sentiment) would incur only a fraction of the death penalty costs, including prison expenses."

June 30, 2008 - Supplement to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (1,120KB)  



The Washington State Bar Association (WSBA), adopted the Apr. 13, 2007 "Final Report of the Death Penalty Subcommittee of the Committee on Public Defense," which stated:

"It costs significantly more to try a capital case to final verdict than to try the same case as an aggravated murder case where the penalty sought is life without possibility of parole.

At the trial level, death penalty cases are estimated to generate roughly $470,000 in additional costs to the prosecution and defense over the cost of trying the same case as an aggravated murder without the death penalty and costs of $47,000 to $70,000 for court personnel.

On direct appeal, the cost of appellate defense averages $100,000 more in death penalty cases, than in non-death penalty murder cases.

Personal restraint petitions filed in death penalty cases on average cost an additional $137,000 in public defense costs.

On direct appeals and personal restraint petitions, the prosecutor spends significant attorney time responding to the issues raised by the defendant to the Washington Supreme Court. If a death penalty defendant does not succeed before the Washington State Supreme Court, additional defense costs will be incurred in a habeas corpus petition to the federal court and appeals to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court. The Washington State Attorney General must provide attorneys to defend the death penalty sentence before the federal courts."

Apr. 13, 2007 - Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) 



The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in a 2002 presentation from its Capital Punishment Project titled "The High Costs of the Death Penalty," concluded:

"The available evidence is clear: the death penalty costs more than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. At every step in the process, a capital defendant receives greater constitutional guarantees than non-capital defendants, which costs time and resources. As a result, total costs for each capital case run into the millions of dollars.

While it is the politicians and legislators who often support the death penalty, local counties and communities must bear the financial burden of imposing a capital punishment system, often to the detriment of other health and social services.

With life imprisonment available at a much cheaper, fairer, and more humane form of punishment, the high costs of the death penalty, and their burdens on local governments, simply are not worth whatever benefits may be claimed for it."

2002 - American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) 



Arthur L. Alarcon, LLB, Senior Judge for the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and Paula M. Mitchell, JD, Adjunct Professor of Law at Loyola Law School, wrote the following in the June 2011 article “Executing the Will of the Voters?: A Roadmap to Mend or End the California Legislature’s Multi-Billion-Dollar Death Penalty Debacle,” published in Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review:

"Our research has revealed that $4 billion of state and federal taxpayer money has been expended administering the death penalty in California since 1978, with a cost in 2009 of approximately $184 million above what taxpayers would have spent without the death penalty… These totals do not include the additional funds the state is poised to spend to maintain the current broken system...

In cases in which a defendant faces a maximum penalty of life without the possibility of parole, rather than the death penalty, there is no penalty phase trial at all. Thus, the government would not incur these costly expenditures if the death penalty were abolished…

The costs associated with death penalty trials that took place between 1983 and 2006 averaged about $1 million more per trial than the costs of average non–death penalty homicide trials. This conclusion is also supported by the fact that there are several significant, easily identifiable costs incurred in every death penalty trial that are not incurred in non–death penalty homicide."

June 2011 - Arthur L. Alarcon, LLB 
Paula M. Mitchell, JD