Verify: What's the true cost of the death penalty?

What's the cost of the death penalty?

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - Whether you’re for or against the death penalty, there is a heavy cost associated with the care of death row inmates. We wanted to verify the truth of it all by looking at the cost of execution versus incarceration.

We ran across study after study on execution costs from many states. They all said the same thing; it costs two to four times more to work death penalty cases and fulfill processes associated with the death penalty. But, we could not find a single study done specifically here in Arkansas.

Neither could Robert Lytle, a Criminal Justice Assistant Professor at UA Little Rock. He told us there are thousands of dollars in costs the public doesn’t think about. Costs such as additional attorneys and investigators. He added, while the state may save money by not having to care for a prisoner after their execution, there’s a lot of spending and legal costs that it takes just to get to the day of execution.

The Arkansas Department of Correction said it costs an average of $22,086 to house a prisoner each year. For death row inmates, it’s slightly more, $24,820. So to house the 34 people on death row each year, the state pays about $843,800.

"If we execute these people there may be some short term cost savings for those people, but when you look at the process as a whole, those savings are a lot less," said Lytle.

The execution is a lengthy, costly process that can’t be argued.

"The bulk of the cost comes at trial," said Lytle.

Arkansas Public Defender Commission Director, Gregg Parrish, told us the Arkansas Public Defender Commission took on 46 capital murder cases during the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

"As attorneys we have to presume that death is being sought until it is waved in record or by the prosecuting attorney," said Parrish.

He said each case can vary in price drastically, but based on his experience and knowledge, he roughly estimated that to work a case where the death penalty is sought, you're looking at an additional $75,000 to $100,000 from their agency. That's because of the additional factors that go into working a death penalty case.

"We must, by law, appoint two attorneys, two death qualified attorneys, and there’s only a limited number of those in Arkansas," Parrish said. "We must also appoint an investigator, we must appoint a mitigation specialist, that specialist looks at the background of the accused."

Additional costs go into all of the extra factors and some can be significant. Parrish added if the offender is from another country, for example, a mitigation specialist must visit to find out everything about their upbringing. That itself can be a hefty cost and it's these extra protections that can’t be avoided.

“The reason why we have all these extra things that cost so much money is because the U.S. Supreme Court has said that basically those are the rules you have to play by," Lytle said. "If you’re going to have a death penalty, you have to have these extra protections in place."

If the state decided to seek capital punishment in all 46 cases last year, the state would have to pay an estimated $3.5 to 4.6 million dollars more compared to non-death penalty cases.

"As long as death is in play, we're going to spend some more money, no doubt about it," said Parrish.

After a trial, there are often multiple appeals, new trials, and standard legal proceedings in death penalty cases. The executions scheduled now are coming about 20 years after sentencing.

"There’s a reason it goes on 20 years, 30 years, or longer. There’s a reason federal courts overturn death sentences, there’s a reason why there’s re-sentencing, so we have to continuously deal with that," said Parrish.

While most of the spending comes at the forefront of a case, there is also money being spent now to fulfill the executions. There’s the cost to conduct the clemency hearings, the last minute court hearings, the drugs used, and the people needed to carry it all out, but the Department of Correction said they don’t put a price on life, so they don’t maintain data on the cost to carry out a death sentence.

In the end, the costs of being put to death versus imprisonment can be debated, but there can be no price tag placed on the pain endured by the families involved.

© 2017 KTHV-TV


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