Last updated on: 1/24/2017 | Author:

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

PRO (yes)


Robert B. Evnen, JD, Attorney and Co-founder of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, stated the following in his July 11, 2015 article “Local View: Thoughts about the Death Penalty: Correcting the Record,” available at

“Much of the cost, indeed, much of the criticism of the death penalty, is attributed to ‘decades of appeals.’ It is unsurprising that the loudest complaints about death penalty delays come from death penalty opponents who have created them…

Claimed ‘cost studies,’ often performed by or at the behest of death penalty opponents, are frequently so incomplete as to be false and misleading. For example, they don’t take into account the increase in the cost of life without parole cases if there were no death penalty. Criminal defendants who are facing the death penalty — which today must be pleaded by prosecutors up front — often want to make a deal by pleading guilty to first degree murder in exchange for a sentencing recommendation of life without parole. The existence of the death penalty as a possible sentence leads to guilty pleas that save the money spent on trials and limit the opportunity for appeals.”

July 11, 2015 - Robert B. Evnen, JD


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.”

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

CON (no)


Richard C. Dieter, MS, JD, former Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, stated the following in his Mar. 13, 2013 “Testimony Submitted to the Nebraska Legislature,” available at

“One of the most common misperceptions about the death penalty is the notion that the death penalty saves money because executed defendants no longer have to be cared for at the state’s expense. If the costs of the death penalty were to be measured at the time of an execution, that might indeed be true. But as every prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge knows, the costs of a capital case begin long before the sentence is carried out. Experienced prosecutors and defense attorneys must be assigned and begin a long period of investigation and pre-trial hearings. Jury selection, the trial itself, and initial appeals will consume years of time and enormous amounts of money before an execution is on the horizon…

[A]ll of the studies conclude that the death penalty system is far more expensive than an alternative system in which the maximum sentence is life in prison.”

Mar. 13, 2013 - Richard C. Dieter, MS, JD


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

“[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

“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 - Lisa Greenman, JD Jon B. Gould, JD, PhD


Death Penalty Focus, an anti-capital punishment advocacy organization, wrote in the article “Myth 1: A Death Sentence Costs Less Than a Life Sentence,” available at (accessed Jan. 24, 2017):

“It seems like common sense that it’s cheaper to execute someone than to house, feed and take care of them for the rest of their natural life. But there are a lot of unavoidable costs that make a death sentence far more expensive than a sentence of life without parole.

Most of these costs result from the unique status of the death penalty within the US justice system. Because it’s the only truly irreversible form of punishment, the Constitution requires a long and complex judicial process for capital cases, including several levels of mandatory review after a death sentence is issued. The appeals process takes decades to complete.

Studies of the California death penalty system, the largest in the US, have revealed that a death sentence costs at least 18 times as much as a sentence of life without parole would cost.”

Jan. 24, 2017 - 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


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