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Nevada death penalty costs reflect U.S. trends | News

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Nevada death penalty costs reflect U.S. trends
Infographic by Ned Wolfenbarger

When Nevada lawmakers were informed in November that death penalty cases in the state cost $532,000 more on average than other murder cases from arrest through the end of incarceration, the findings were consistent with other studies pushed by anti-death penalty advocates.

The financial hit taken by taxpayers has become one of the central arguments death penalty foes have used in recent years in an effort to have states overturn that form of punishment.

A search of the Internet turns up little in the way of arguments that refute the cost studies, even though the majority of states have death penalty laws that continue to be defended by victims' rights organizations.

There are 18 states without the death penalty. Michigan has been on that list the longest, having been without a death penalty since 1846, while Maryland was last to join this group in 2013.

Nevada is among the other 32 states with the death penalty, with April 2006 being the last time the punishment was applied in this state. That's when lethal injection was used on Daryl Mack, a 47-year-old inmate who initially was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 1994 strangulation death of one woman in northern Nevada. He was then given the death penalty when he was later convicted while in prison for the 1988 murder of another woman in Reno.

The report from Nevada's Legislative Auditor based its cost estimates by sampling 28 cases. Cases where the defendant was sentenced to death but not executed averaged $1,307,000, compared to $1,202,000 where prosecutors sought the death penalty but didn't get one, $1,032,000 when execution occurred, and $775,000 when the death penalty wasn't sought by prosecutors.

“Case costs, incorporating the trial and appeal phases, averaged about three times more for death penalty versus non-death penalty cases,” the report concluded.

“For incarceration costs, the death penalty is the most expensive sentence for those convicted of first degree murder, but only slightly higher when compared to those sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Costs for these two sentences largely mirror one another because incarceration periods are similar considering ‘involuntary' executions are extremely infrequent.”

The Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that opposes the death penalty, posted on its website the Nevada report and similar studies from other states. Among the other findings:

  • A Seattle University study released in January found that death penalty cases in Washington state cost $1 million more on average than similar cases where the death penalty wasn't sought.
  • A 2014 report from the Kansas Legislature's Judicial Council concluded that defending a death penalty case in that state costs four times as much as defending a case where the death penalty isn't pursued.
  • The Idaho Legislature's Office of Performance Evaluations reported last year that the State Appellate Public Defenders office spent almost 8,000 hours per capital defendant compared to 180 hours per non-death penalty defendant.
  • A study published in the University of Denver Criminal Law Review in 2013 found that capital proceedings in Colorado require six times more days in court and take much longer to resolve than life without parole cases.
  • The Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review published a study in 2011 concluding that if the governor of California commuted the sentences of death row inmates to life without parole, the state would save $170 million a year and $5 billion over the next 20 years.

The nonprofit website ProCon.org of Santa Monica, Calif., which strives to promote critical thinking by providing pro and con arguments on dozens of controversial topics, posed the question of whether the death penalty costs less than life in prison without parole. The vast majority of respondents said they believed death penalty cases cost far more than those involving life in prison without parole.

One of the few respondents in the minority was Tennessee lawyer Chris Clem, who was quoted by the website as saying: “Executions do not have to cost that much. We could hang them and reuse the rope. No cost! Or we could use firing squads and ask for volunteer firing squad members who would provide their own guns and ammunition. Again, no cost.”

Florida attorney Gary Beatty, in a 1997 article posted on the website of the conservative/libertarian Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., stated:

“The overwhelming majority of citizens of Florida, as in the rest of the nation, support the death penalty. To claim that when citizens are educated about the high fiscal cost of administering the death penalty they always opt for life imprisonment is intellectually dishonest. If the multiple layers of appeal are pursued in an ethical and fiscally responsible manner, execution is less costly than warehousing a murderer for life. Any increased cost is caused by death penalty opponents.”

Infographic by Ned Wolfenbarger
Infographic by Ned Wolfenbarger
Infographic by Ned Wolfenbarger

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