“Spending all this money on the death penalty might be worth it—if it actually made our communities safer. But it doesn’t…Our communities would be exponentially better off by reinvesting the time, money and resources we spend on trying to get a few people executed into crime prevention measures that work”–Norm Stamper, Retired Seattle Police Chief
The death penalty costs millions A 2014 study undertaken by Seattle University’s Criminal Justice Department estimated that a death penalty case costs in excess of an additional $1 million dollars over a similar non-death penalty case. It costs so much because a life is on the line and the court cases are therefore much more rigorous with more lawyers, witnesses, experts, a longer jury selection process and more motions racking up the cost before the first appeal is even filed.
The counter-intuitive truth The death penalty costs more than a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, even when accounting for housing, health care, and feeding a prisoner for life. The complicated and necessary legal processes that make up capital punishment trials mandated by the US Supreme Court make it much more expensive. In Washington state, all capital defendants also have the constitutional right to appeal after conviction. Once the state level proceedings are concluded, federal law grants all capital defendants the right to have their cases reviewed in the federal courts. This slows down justice and wastes valuable time and money.
Those millions could be better spent to make Washington safer People often think that the death penalty makes us safer, but if the money were spent on more law enforcement, a better prison system, and other proven public safety measures, we would be safer. If the time spent on capital trials were spent on investigating, prosecuting, sentencing and preventing other crimes, we would be safer. For example, Thurston County spent so much time and money on the Mitchell Rupe case, they did not have the resources to deal with overcrowding in their jail, meaning that other criminals were released early.
The extensive appeals and motions are at the taxpayers’ expense Since most capital defendants are too poor to afford an attorney, the taxpayer picks up the costs for the defense and the prosecution. Thousands of lawyer hours are accumulated, payment coming out of state and local budgets. The Washington State Legislature established the Extraordinary Criminal Justice Assistance Account in 1999, with tens of millions of dollars having been requested to help with capital prosecutions. Smaller counties often do not want such a case tried in their courthouse, for fear it will bankrupt them. Aside from the crippling costs, this also further slants the judicial system – when the potential cost of sentencing begins to prejudice the actual sentencing process, it unfairly affects the implementation of fair and just criminal punishments.
We cannot make it cheaper The extraordinary expenses of the death penalty are legally mandated to reduce the risks of executing an innocent person, since so many capital trials are found to have significant legal errors in them. Even so, the number of exonerations from death row across the country is approaching 150, including one here in Washington state. While Governor Inslee has imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in Washington State as of January 2015, the possibility remains that this could be reversed by a future gubernatorial administration. Legislation is necessary to truly end this inefficient and unjust process.
In today’s economic environment where the state faces significant budget shortfalls year after year, should we not hold the death penalty to the same cost-benefit analysis held to other state programs? The millions of dollars that Washington taxpayers have paid to seek the death penalty could have been spent on increasing the number of police on the streets, solving cold cases, or resolving our over-populated prison problem. It’s time to evaluate whether or not death penalty is worth the price.