A Costly Matter Of Life Or Death

Taxpayers pay a high price for capital punishment

As weighty issues go, the death penalty certainly incites passionate debate. But emotional and moral arguments aside, an increasing number of states are looking at the financial toll capital punishment takes on taxpayers, and debating whether life imprisonment is a more cost-effective alternative.

Thirty-eight states have the death penalty. Currently, 3,387 men and women reside on death row–more than a third of them in California, Florida and Texas. A death penalty case in these three states costs taxpayers an average of $5.28, $3.2 and $2.3 million, respectively, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In California, capital trials are six times more costly than noncapital cases.

While states pick up the final tab for death penalty cases, a heavy financial burden is placed on local governments. The county government is typically responsible for the costs of prosecution and the costs of the criminal trial, including attorney’s fees, salaries for courtroom personnel and fees for expert witnesses. This money is spent at the expense of corrections departments and crime prevention programs, which are already strapped for cash.

As for those who argue that the death penalty is a powerful law-enforcement tool, a national poll found that police chiefs rate the death penalty as the least effective way to reduce violent crime.

Death Row USA
Total Number of Death Row Inmates: 3, 387
(As of April 1, 1998)

Race of Defendant:
White 1,611 (47.56%)
Black 1,420 (41.93)
Latino/Latina 265 (7.82)
Native American 45 (1.33)
Asian 25 (.74)
Unknown 21 (.62)

Average Cost Per Inmate Per Day

1990 $48.07
1991 48.51
1992 50.22
1993 52.38
1994 53.24
1995 53.85
1996 54.25
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