Almost every time people discuss the death penalty on social media, at least one person chimes in with this opinion: We should execute people because it’s too expensive to keep them in prison for life.
But the truth is, the death penalty costs far more than life without parole.
The extra costs begin adding up the moment a suspect is arrested and charged capitally. They continue for all the years he sits on death row, until his execution is complete. When it’s all over, it would have been far cheaper if the person had spent his life in prison, awaiting a natural death.
A rigorous 2009 study on the costs of the N.C. death penalty found that keeping capital punishment on the books costs our state at least $11 million a year, even while executions are on hold. And that is just in extra defense costs, not taking into account prosecution and court expenses.
On average, defending a capital case costs four times as much as a first-degree murder trial in which the defendant faces a maximum of life without parole, according to the N.C. Office of Indigent Defense Services, which provides defense attorneys for most criminal defendants in North Carolina.
Studies in other states have all shown the same thing: The death penalty is a net loss for taxpayers.
Here are some of the ways the North Carolina death penalty costs more than life imprisonment:
- A suspect who is charged capitally has the right to two specially trained attorneys, plus funds for experts and mitigation investigators who compile extensive reports to help jurors understand the defendant’s circumstances when they are deciding between life and death.
- At trial, selecting a “death-qualified” jury of only people who are willing to impose a death sentence often takes weeks or months, while selecting a non-capital jury is typically completed in a few days.
- Unlike non-capital trials, death penalty trials have a separate penalty phase, complete with witness and expert testimony.
- These longer, more complex trials add up to thousands of additional hours for defense attorneys, prosecutors, law enforcement, and court officials.
- Once they are sentenced to death, defendants are automatically entitled to many levels of appeals, which typically go on for at least a decade.
- While in prison, they are housed on death row — a special, segregated unit with extra security — and they are not allowed to work as other prisoners do.
- As long as executions are possible, the prison must maintain a death chamber and a team of staff who are trained to carry out lethal injections. They also must procure increasingly scarce execution drugs, which some states are being forced to import or have specially made in compounding pharmacies. (That’s not to mention the cost of continuing litigation in North Carolina over the state’s lethal injection protocols.)
A 1993 study found that, all told, it costs the state $2.16 million more per case to prosecute a homicide capitally and see it through to execution. We can only imagine what the cost would be today.
So, the next time you find yourself in a conversation with someone spouting the old “kill ‘em to save money” line, we hope you’ll give them an education on the true costs of the death penalty.