Cost

The death penalty is more expensive than life in prison without parole.

Every cost study of the death penalty concludes that capital punishment is more expensive than life in prison without parole. A 1993 Duke University study showed that the death penalty in North Carolina cost $2.16 million more per execution than a non-death penalty murder trial. NM Supreme Court Justice Richard Bossom estimated that the cost of death penalty cases in New Mexico is six times higher than other murder cases.[1]

In 2009, the New Mexico State Public Defender Department estimated that the state would save several million dollars per year on Public Defender costs alone if the death penalty was replaced with an alternative sentence. Researchers currently estimate that the death penalty costs New Mexico between $3 to $4 million per year even though there has only been one execution in the state since 1960.

All studies regarding the cost of the death penalty conclude that it amounts to a net expense to the state and the taxpayers.[2] While common sense might suggest that executions would cost less than a sentence of life without parole and the incarceration of the prisoner for 30 to 40 years or longer until natural death, safeguards built into the death penalty system are extraordinarily costly. Death penalty costs are accrued upfront, especially at trial and for the early appeals, while the cost of life in prison are spread out over many decades. To any state, a million dollars spent today is a lot more costly than an equivalent amount paid gradually over 40 years.

Money spent on the death penalty takes away resources from other state needs, especially the needs of the victims of crime. A state must choose where to put its limited resources. The extra money spent on the death penalty could be spent on other means of achieving justice and making the community safer, such as compensation for victims, expanded services for murder victim family members, more police on the streets or projects to reduce unemployment.

Most costs related to death penalty cases are incurred at the trial phase because these cases are more complicated and more time-consuming. Death penalty trials are actually two full trials: one for determining innocence or guilt and another trial for sentencing. The overwhelming majority of death penalty defendants cannot afford a private attorney and the state is obligated to provide two defense attorneys per defendant for both of these trial phases. The jury selection process takes about five times longer in a death penalty case, and the jury is more likely to be sequestered.

To date, 80% of all death penalty convictions in New Mexico have been overturned or commuted-the highest rate in the U.S.[3] Less than 25% of all death penalty prosecutions ultimately result in the defendant going to death row. In New Mexico, there is only a 4.5% chance that a death penalty prosecution will ever end in an execution.

All of these factors mean that the death penalty is an expensive public policy choice that poor states like New Mexico find difficult to maintain.


[1] New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Richard Bossom, December 2004

[2] Richard Dieter, Death Penalty Information Center, Testimony to NY State Assembly Committees on Codes, Judiciary & Corrections, 1/25/2005.

[3] U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, ‘Capital Punishment 2003" appendix Table 4, 2004