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Capital Punishment

The Costs Of Capital Punishment

In 1989, the state of Florida executed 42-year-old Ted Bundy. Bundy confessed to 28 murders in four states. During his nine years on death row, he received three stays of execution. Before he was put to death in the electric chair, Bundy cost taxpayers more than $5 million.

In a country where some 70 percent of the population favors the death penalty, many people may feel that Bundy got what he deserved. A further question, however, is whether U.S. taxpayers got their money's worth. When a single sentence of death can cost millions of dollars to carry out, does it make economic sense to retain the death penalty?

At first glance, the costs involved in the execution of an inmate appear simple and minuscule. As of 2003, the state of Florida paid $150 to the executioner, $20 for the last meal, $150 for a new suit for the inmate's burial, and $525 for the undertaker's services and a coffin. In Florida, the cost of an execution is less than $1,000.

The actual execution of an inmate is quick and simple; the capital punishment system is far more complex. To resolve issues of unconstitutionality that the Supreme Court found in FURMAN V. GEORGIA, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S. Ct. 2726, 33 L. Ed. 2d 346 (1972), states found it necessary to introduce a complex appeals process that would guarantee the rights of death row inmates. Capital trials are much more expensive to carry out than are their noncapital counterparts because of the price at stake, the life of the accused. Evidence gathering is also more expensive: evidence must be collected not only to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused but also to support or contradict a sentence of death. All sentences of death face a mandatory review by the state supreme court, at an additional cost of at least $70,000. If a case advances further in the state or federal appeals process, the costs are likely to jump to $275,000 or more for each appeal.

Appeals of a death sentence guarantee great expense to the taxpayer, as the state pays both to defend and to prosecute death row inmates. Public defenders in such appeals openly admit that their goal is delay, and prosecutors and state attorneys slow the process by fighting access to public records and allowing death row defendants to sweat out their cases until the last minute.

Abolitionists believe that the existing system cannot be repaired and must be abandoned. The alternative sentence, life imprisonment without PAROLE, achieves the same result as capital punishment, they argue. Like the death penalty, a life sentence permanently removes the convict from the community against which he or she committed crimes. And it is far less expensive.

According to a 1990 study, the total cost to build a maximum-security prison cell is $63,000, which breaks down to approximately $5,000 a year in principal and interest. The annual cost to maintain an inmate in this cell is approximately $20,000 a year. Together, these costs mean an annual expenditure of $25,000 to incarcerate an inmate. Based on a sentence term of 40 to 45 years, one inmate would cost the taxpayer only slightly more than $1 million—less than a third of what it would take to pay for the process that culminates in execution. A twenty-five-year-old woman convicted of first-degree murder would need to serve a life term to the age of 145 before the costs of incarcerating her would surpass those of executing her.

Other studies have reached similar conclusions. According to a study by the Indiana Criminal Law Study Commission released in 2002, executions cost the state 38 percent more than the costs of keeping an inmate incarcerated for life. Similarly, a 1993 study at Duke University showed that between 1976 and 1992, the state of North Carolina spent in excess of $1 billion on executions or $2.16 million per execution. Moreover, in January 2003, the California governor approved the construction of a $220 million state-of-the-art death row.

Not only are the costs of execution excessive but so too are the time delays. It is not unusual for an individual to wait on death row for more than ten years. In the 1995 case Lackey v. Texas, 514 U.S. 1045, 115 S. Ct. 1421, 131 L. Ed. 2d 304, Clarence Allen Lackey, who had been on death row for seventeen years, claimed that such a duration constituted CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT. Although his motion was denied, Justices JOHN PAUL STEVENS and STEPHEN BREYER admitted that the concern was not without warrant.

Opponents of capital punishment point out that abandoning the death penalty would make available many millions of dollars as well as thousands of hours that the courts could allocate to other aspects of the criminal justice system. The amount of money necessary to execute a single inmate might be used to put several criminals behind bars for the remainder of their lives.

Supporters of capital punishment agree with detractors on one issue: the death row appeals process is far too complex and expensive. However, while opponents of the death penalty use this as a reason to reform sentencing, supporters use it as a reason to reform the system of appeals. Supporters argue that thorough reform of the appeals process would free up as much money as abolishing the death penalty; expenses could be cut while capital punishment is retained.

Immediately following the execution of Bundy, Chief Justice WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST called for changes in the procedure for appealing death sentences. Noting that the Supreme Court had turned down three emergency appeals by Bundy in the hours just prior to his execution, the chief justice said, "Surely it would be a bold person to say that this system could not be improved."

In a 1995 interview, President BILL CLINTON, a staunch supporter of capital punishment, called the appeals process ridiculous and in need of reform. Clinton, like other supporters of the death penalty, saw appeals reform as paramount if capital punishment is to be efficiently and effectively carried out.

Supporters also argue that too many rights are provided to death row inmates. The appeals process is too kind to convicts, they argue, and ignores the pain that persists in the aftermath of the criminals' actions. Family members of victims of capital crimes are expected to wait years, while perpetrators abuse the system to forestall execution of the sentence imposed.

In addition to the president, the nation's highest court sides with those who support capital punishment. Under the leadership of Chief Justice Rehnquist, the Supreme Court has moved to limit the number of appeals a death row inmate may file, arguing that endless appeals serve only to undermine the ability of the state to carry out its constitutionally sanctioned punishment.


Gold, Russell. 2002. "Counties Struggle with High Cost of Prosecuting Death-Penalty Cases; Result is Often Higher Taxes, Less Spending on Services; 'Like Lightning Striking.'" The Wall Street Journal (January 9).

"Judge Changes Mind on Murder Case Costs." 2002. The New York Times (August 25).

Streib, Victor L. 2003. Death Penalty in a Nutshell. St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson/West.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Bryan Treaties (Bryan Arbitration Treaties) to James Earl Carter Jr. - Further ReadingsCapital Punishment - Cruel And Unusual Punishment, The Costs Of Capital Punishment, Evolving Standards Of Decency, Capital Punishment For Dwi-related Offenses