Twelve prisoners have been executed in the United States so far in 2011. Ending these lives was a costly endeavor. The costs associated with a death sentence — $3 million on average — are three times greater than the costs associated with a life sentence. Thirty-five states currently have the death penalty, but with many of the states experiencing budget shortfalls, death penalty cases are getting a second look in some states. Below, Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, talks with Out of the Storm News about the price of putting someone to death.
OOTS News: Many people don’t realize the death penalty can actually be quite costly. Can you talk about the cost of putting someone to death?
Dieter: Legally, every part of a death penalty case is more expensive than a regular criminal case: from preparation for trial, the number of lawyers appointed, the number of prosecutors, the amount of time, the experts, jury selection, the trials itself and the appeals. They are all more expensive. Even keeping someone on death row is more expensive than keeping them in prison because they are in a single cell and meals are brought to them. They are watched 24 hours. The only time you might save money in a death penalty case is if a person is executed, but other costs are so overwhelming by that time that it is so much more expensive to execute someone counting all the legal costs leading up to it than it is to keep them in prison for life. It is quite a bit more depending on what you measure per death sentence or per execution.
The death sentence is about $3 million where as a regular case is about $1 million for a regular trial and life sentence. A lot of people who get the death penalty are never executed.
OOTS News: Do you have numbers for the average cost to house one death row inmate per year?
Dieter: There is not a national average here, but the average for keeping someone in prison is about $25,000 per year per person. On death row, the estimates are $40,000 to $60,000. Those are the numbers I have seen from various states. Some states have one person on death row and another may have 700 people on death row so they are not exactly comparable. I would say a fair guess of an estimate is $50,000 or about twice as much to keep somebody in prison. It may be three times as much in many states. But twice as much would be a fair estimate. Just putting them on death row for 15 years is about what it takes to get to execution, which is comparable to 30 years in prison. That is just the death row costs. The appeals, the trials, all the other things are much more expensive. When they are not executed, what you are essentially doing is keeping them in prison for life. So you have got all of those costs with a very expensive trial and appeals cost to get there. It is life without parole in its most expensive form.
OOTS News: When you say most of them aren’t actually executed, is it because they end up dying on death row?
Dieter: A few do, but more cases are overturned on appeal. The sentence is overturned. They get a new sentencing hearing or they just reduce it to life. In one study of the death row all over the country, two-thirds of the cases are overturned on appeal. Then when they are redone, about 80 percent get life the second time around. Most are overturned and most get life sentence when they are overturned. Most people aren’t executed even when they get the death sentence. Over the course of the death penalty, of the sentence that have been handed down, less than 15 percent have been executed. Some are still on death row, but some of those are going to be overturned. Some get clemency, some die, it is legal changes, but overwhelmingly there are legal reversals that change it.
OOTS News: You mentioned a little bit about what it is like cost-wise with death row versus life in prison. Can you talk a bit about cost of someone on death row versus life in prison?
Dieter: Death row is the highest form of security incarceration, because there is a chance of suicide, there is a single cell. Their meals and legal things are brought to them. If they have a visitor, they are shackled and escorted by two guards. They do not work in the prison generally, so there is no help for the prison like with meals. So that is not a way to efficiently run the prison. That is the most expensive form. But the myth is that they will be executed soon and so we don’t have them in the programs for rehabilitation. The reality is it will be 15 years or maybe longer before they are executed. So they are doing much of a life sentence in prison, but the number of guards for an inmate on death row is going to be higher than any place else.
OOTS News: What about the actual cost of executing? Is that an expensive endeavor?
Dieter: The chemicals are a few hundred dollars. There have to have some extra guards on that day, so there is overtime. We are talking thousands of dollars perhaps. It is a small part compared to the millions it takes to get there. That is a relative short thing.
OOTS News: I know several states are dealing with tight budget issues or going over budget. How are they coping with that in terms of the death penalty?
Dieter: Some states are considering abolishing it. Illinois this year in 2011 voted to abolish the death penalty and costs were one of the big factors. The governor hasn’t signed that bill yet. When he does they will be done. They were spending about $100 million since 2003 and that is not even all of their expenses. So they voted it out. There were lots of reasons, but cost was one. Other states are going to be considering that this year, too.
OOTS News: Do you anticipate more states abolishing it?
Dieter: Yes, I think Maryland will look at that very soon. Their governor is opposed to the death penalty and he was just reelected by an overwhelming majority. They came very close in previous legislatures. I think it will happen. In Connecticut, the legislature voted to abolish the death penalty. Their governor vetoed it two years ago, but now they have a new governor who said he would sign it. They are likely to take that route as well. A few other states are getting close such as Colorado and Montana. Again, there will be more states, especially when you don’t see anything coming out of it — no executions in a year, or one in a year and cases overturned. Fifteen to 20 years from sentencing to execution is very, very expensive form of imprisonment with occasionally somebody getting executed, but most people not.