The Conservative Case Against Capital Punishment

The death penalty process is too wasteful and expensive to justify any longer.
June 12, 2015
By Marc Hyden  |  Contributor
Marc Hyden is the national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty.

Last month, Nebraska became the first red state to repeal capital punishment in over 40 years. The effort was led by conservatives who oppose the death penalty for a variety of reasons, including its enormous cost. In states that still have capital punishment on the books, it has become a burden on taxpayers because the death penalty process, like so many other government programs, is wasteful and inefficient.

The decision to seek a death sentence is settled very early in the process by the prosecution, and that decision can have major fiscal ramifications, which have led to budget crises and tax increases. The pre-trial and trial segments are the most costly portions of the process because capital trials involve more time, more motions and deeper investigations, and they require more attorneys, court employees and expert witnesses.

In Colorado, for example, studies have estimated that death penalty trials are six times longer than similar non-death cases. In Kansas, defense costs were found to be four times higher in capital-punishment proceedings. And in New Hampshire, where a life-without-parole prosecution costs between $70,000 and $100,000, the prosecution costs for a single death penalty case were $2.4 million.

The costs of capital cases bear heavily on local governments and their taxpayers as well. Clallam County, Ore., cut its workforce by 15 percent to pay to retry a death-row inmate. Jasper County, Texas, raised its property taxes by 6.7 percent to cover the cost of one capital trial. Lincoln County, Ga., raised its taxes multiple times, and eventually its county commissioners were jailed for refusing to pay additional fees associated with a capital case.

One reason capital cases are so costly is that they involve not one but two trials. After the guilt-or-innocence phase of a death penalty case has been concluded, there is another trial to decide whether the offender should be sentenced to death. This sentencing trial is unique to capital cases and adds many more days to the total trial time, necessitating more hours from judges, attorneys and jurors.

And once those trials are completed, the much-criticized appeals process begins. There are three levels of appeals in capital cases, whereas there is only one in non-death proceedings. The death penalty appeals process can take decades. The Idaho appellate public defender's office reported spending over 79,000 billable hours on 10 capital cases while spending less than 17,000 hours defending 95 individuals serving life sentences.

Sixty-eight percent of death sentences are overturned on appeal, requiring much of the expensive process to begin again. But appeals serve an important purpose: They are the reason that many people sentenced to die have been released after being wrongly convicted. It has taken more than 30 years for men like Louisiana's Glenn Ford, North Carolina's Henry Lee McCollum and Ohio's Ricky Jackson to clear their names after being wrongly sentenced to die.

And then there are the much higher incarceration costs associated with capital punishment. Housing inmates on death row is far more expensive than keeping them in the general population of a medium- or maximum-security prison. One study in Kansas pegged the cost of housing inmates on death row at twice as much as general-population housing -- around $50,000 vs. $25,000 per inmate per year.

When death-row inmates are put to death, as about 10 percent ultimately are, the execution inflicts additional costs on the state. A fiscal note in North Carolina claimed an execution cost around $16,000, while Connecticut's only execution in the last 50 years cost $316,000.

Studies have repeatedly found that the death penalty is more expensive and time consuming than its alternatives at every step of the process and that capital punishment's costs are rising. These high costs are driven, in part, by government mandates and the desire to avoid executing an innocent person. In an era when fiscal mismanagement and wasteful government programs are the status quo, capital punishment is a prime example of financial irresponsibility. That's why, more and more, conservatives are turning against it.