Alexander Adams

I. Introduction

The claim the death penalty (may be referred to, as the title already does, “DP”) costs to much is one of the most common claims about the death penalty. The history of it really began in 1970 when abolitionists began to back down from morality claims as they had little ground to stand on. So they decided to take a whack at the administrative “problems” of the DP, such as race, innocents, and costs. We will only look into costs in this article to make it simpler.

I would say the death penalty information center (DPIC) has the most data on the subject. Their most famous article, “Millions Misspent: What Politicians Dont Say About the High Costs of the Death Penalty” argues the death penalty is far more expensive then the DP. I would first like to note even if they where right they still have no substance—that’s an argument for reform not abolition—as we can easily make a limit to the appeals process and cut costs. Virginia does this and their death penalty is considerably cheaper. And what is ironic is even though many reforms post-Furman have been implemented; the DP is STILL CHEAPER then life without parole.

The ACLU continues with these false claims. They argue life without parole is seventy percent cheaper then equivalent death penalty cases. As I will now explain, these claims are false, it is a deception (which is what you usually get from the abolitionist crowd).

II. The studies flaws

The heart of this argument is simple: studies say X and therefore X is true. These studies are wrought with error and weak conclusions.

First, lets start with studies that date to the eighties. Although not as common as the studies in the 1990s, the studies in the 80s are still cited by abolitionists today. GAO reports in 1989 offer solid criticism to these studies and, therefore, refute the bastion of abolitionist policies. The GAO notes:

“In recent years, studies, articles, and reports have been published on the costs associated with the death penalty at state level. They have generally concluded that, contrary to what many people believe, death sentence cases cost more than non-death sentence cases. However, we found these conclusions were not adequately supported. Most of the studies did not actually compare death sentence cases with non-death sentence cases, and some of the studies did not contain actual cost data. Further, even cases where cost data were cited, these data where incomplete” [1].

Even though the data proving the DP was sparse, weak, and questionable at best, the DPIC 1994 article (cited in the introduction) cited these studies like they where flawless and concluded the death penalty costs more. Richard Dieter, the DPIC president and anti-capital punishment advocate still cites these studies when testifying before our government or in the media, yet he ignores the 1989 GAO report which refutes the numbers he continues to cite. He is also (as well as the ACLU and other groups) citing newer studies. These studies, sadly, still suffer from the same drawbacks.

First, many of these studies have inadequate sample size. They will not test many cases, and may cite only those cases where the evidence is questionable enough to justify appeal for the DP case (however usually it is beyond reasonable doubt, so the sample size is unrepresentative of the whole picture and not random, leading to cherry-picking). Second, many of the studies fail to document the DP’s cost and/or life without parole (LWOP) cost leaving incomplete data. Third, they may also not even use DP data! They may use data for all capital cases, which may not even include death. It’s merely a potential DP case that may or may not chose the rout of a death sentence and may choose LWOP. In other words, this adds many cases, which are irrelevant to death penalty cost and inflate the costs of the DP to fulfill their political and not scientific goals. Lastly, many of the studies cite figures but have no source. You would suspect they use some data from the department of justice. However they have no source for their data. They are simply asserted by the author without any explanation why these figures where used or where they where derived from. I without showing the data, we cannot judge if it is made up, leaving reasonable doubt the study is hiding something [2].

Another flaw is most studies, which claim DP to cost more, ignore healthcare costs. Generally, health costs are higher when you are of older ages. Interestingly enough, prison is stressful and leads to other habits that cause you to age faster (well, your body wears down faster). Because of the lifestyle, many young prisoners actually can rack up many high healthcare costs while death row eventually ends your life preventing many healthcare costs. No study accounts for plea-bargaining either, which saves millions. Although only a small percentage use this plea bargaining option, it avoids the cost of trials and appeals altogether [3]. The only study that looks at the extent of this is a CJLF study that will be discussed later.

III. What other analysis’s say

A reader might point out that I have shown no evidence has been given, meaning there is no conclusion. With no counter data, how can we claim it costs less (or the same)? When looking at comprehensive studies, they either conclude no cost difference or the DP is slightly cheaper.

Jon Sorensen and Rocky Pilgrim cite many studies in their book as well as offer their own analysis. One of the studies they cited came from Duke University. The study us often falsely cited by the DPIC. Their first estimate is that each DP costs 2.6 million dollars. Obviously, the DPIC would prefer that estimate. However, the authors noted this estimate is too extreme and is likely not very accurate. Their second analysis shows the DP costing 780,000 dollars. Even though this study is one of the best on the books—it was, however conducted before 1993—leading to disqualification already. You might be wondering how the date matters. It matters because of the definition of “life”. When this problem is accounted for, LWOP costs 593,000 dollars per case. When Sorensen and Pilgrim accounted for plea-bargains, 264,000 dollars is saved (by the way, all of this data is for North Carolina). Further, the amount of death sentences actually resulting in execution has been rising since Furman. Given the lack of parole eligibility, with a 50% execution success rate (50% of people on death row actually get the injection) the costs of the DP and LWOP is about the same. A second study conducted in Indiana has results closer to my conclusion already. After skipping some of the data, we see a 117,000 dollar difference (DP costing more). However these estimates where conservative (in the way of success rate, meaning the number is closer). He also ignores plea-bargains, meaning the DP might cost less. Regardless, the two most comprehensive studies show the DP and LWOP are in the same ballpark range in cost [2].

Sorensen then gives a reply to the Dallas Morning News, which claims the DP has very large costs. Sorensen has found many flaws and, when the data is properly analyzed, the DP actually costs LESS in Texas. But he notes the costs are “similar” to other cases. In his conclusion, however, he suggests the DP “at least as cost efficient as life imprisonment, perhaps even more so” [2].

And, if you are interested about the fiscal problem, more execution is needed. As previously stated, a 50% execution success rate leads to equal costs (using flawed DPIC data, anyway, using good data we see less then that is needed). If we increase it to 60%, we would get savings. So abolishing it wouldn’t really help as based on current evidence it is about the same already, so more execution would save much more money.

Now, an analysis done by Dudley Sharp in 1997 (he posts on this website often) finds large cost savings from the death penalty. He notes:

“Many opponents present, as fact, that the cost of the death penalty is so expensive (at least $2 million per case?), that we must choose life without parole (“LWOP”) at a cost of $1 million for 50 years. Predictably, these pronouncements may be entirely false. JFA estimates that LWOP cases will cost $1.2 million – $3.6 million more than equivalent death penalty cases.”[4]

In other words, LWOP costs one million through three and one half million more then death penalty cases. This evidence lends evidence to my argument of the DP costing less.

IV. Plea Bargains

The reason the DP costs more, using the logic of an abolitionist, is trial costs. Now, we can estimate the effect of a plea bargain, and the outcome of that estimate either supports or refutes that hypothesis. For example, lets say the trial of the DP all added together was 100 dollars (obviously not real, just simplifying it). The cost of LWOP is 50 dollars. Not counting the money saved from the DP (such as food, clothing, healthcare etc.) the DP still may cost less based on a plea bargain! Lets say the plea bargaining saves 100 dollars, then the DP cases cost 50 dollars LESS then LWOP cases. Make sense?

Now, the only study I know that exists on the impact of plea bargains is the CJLF study. They conclude the assumption that a repeal of the DP would decrease overall trial costs is not justified based on current data (meaning trial costs when this is factored is about equal). They also note when the DP is repealed, more sentences will be fought in court rather then resulting in a plea. Based on this, overall a DP trial cost is about equal to LWOP costs (refuting the DPIC and ACLU theory) [5].

Now, lets make this prove the DP costs less shall we? All trials cost about the same now (when you add up all trial costs). This means we need to see what LWOP saves money on: nothing. The DP saves money on: Food (less food, at least), healthcare (less healthcare overall), housing space, etc. Meaning after you factor plea bargains AND the things the DP already saves on, we see the DP costs less.

V. Conclusion

After amassing the data, we see the death penalty is as cost efficient, though likely more cost efficient, then equivalent LWOP cases. We see the data that is the bastion for the DPIC older articles is questionable at best, and complete lies at words, and we also see the newer studies which they rely upon in their newer articles are also highly flawed and have the same problems as their older counterparts. We also see no study really factors plea bargains, and when this is done their conclusions effectively disappear. JFA also offers a good case proving the DP is likely 1-3 million dollars cheaper then a LWOP case. So what to I conclude? The death penalty is cheaper, and I hope soon this truth shall prevail.

[1] US General Accounting Office, “Limited Fata Available on Costs of Death Sentences”, Report to the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, (September 1989).

[2] Sorensen, Jonathan R., and Rocky LeAnn Pilgrim. “Lethal Injection: Capital Punishment in Texas during the Modern Era.” Austin, TX: University of Texas, 2006. Print.

[3] Sharp, Dudley. “Cost Savings: The Death Penalty”, can be accessed here:

[4] Sharp, Dudley. “Death Penalty Sentencing Information”, Justice for All, (October 1997). See:

[5] Scheidegger, Kent S. “The Death Penalty and Plea Bargaining to Life Sentences.” Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, Feb. 2009. Web.

About the Author:

Alexander Adams is a high school student who enjoys researching death penalty related issues. A former agnostic on the issue, he later found many abolitionist arguments where illogical, false, or that pro-death penalty arguments are stronger. He is writing for in attempt to enter the national debate and to show the truth about a social issue which literally is an issue of life and death.   You may contact him directly at

3 thoughts on “Wait, does the Death Penalty really cost too much? An analysis

  • September 5, 2012 at 2:49 am

    The spacing got messed up, haha. It’s still ok though

  • January 25, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    Found this article informative and interesting.


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