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December 28, 2009

New Duke study claims $11 million in yearly savings if NC eliminated death penalty

This effective local article, which is headlined "Study: End death cases, save money," reports on a new study coming out of Duke University claiming that North Carolina could save millions by eliminating the death penalty. Here are some of the details:

If the state stopped trying to execute killers, it would free up $11 million a year, according to a study by a Duke University economist published this month.

There is little return on the dollars spent on seeking the death penalty, says Philip Cook, an economist at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy. Of the 1,034 people charged with murder in North Carolina in 2005 and 2006, prosecutors initially sought the death penalty against about a quarter of them. Only 11, though, were sentenced to death for their crimes. "The idea that the state could spend so much money on someone they think is completely undeserving is very interesting," Cook said. "I have to believe that there are some people that would find this cost issue irritating."

Cook's study was published this month in American Law and Economics Review. Cook's last study on the cost of the death penalty in North Carolina was published in 1993. In that study, he estimated an annual savings of $4 million if the death penalty were not an option.

Cook's findings will be presented to lawmakers, and opponents of the death penalty will likely use them to argue that it isn't cost-effective.... Cook argues that the rarity of death sentences undermines the deterrent factor. By his math, the odds of a killer getting the death penalty are less than 1 percent.

Rep. Paul Stam, a Wake County Republican, said criminals don't calculate odds and aren't swayed by them. "Criminals pay more attention to TV and newspaper headlines than to statistics," said Stam, a proponent of the death penalty. "Maybe that is why many of them get caught."

Here and across the country, the death penalty is on the decline. No one has been lethally injected in North Carolina since August 2006, and the 163 inmates now on death row face an uncertain end.

Cook's $11 million figure is a net savings. He assumed everyone currently on death row would be imprisoned for all of their living days, and also factored the estimated costs of appealing convictions of life in prison. Cook did not, however, include savings by prosecutors being spared additional preparation and court time of a capital trial.

It's unclear what bearing, if any, a cost analysis of the punishment will have on its future. "Whenever it comes to reducing or changing punishments, there's a lot of politics and public opinion involved," said Rep. Deborah Ross, a Wake County Democrat. "It's never, ever a dollar-and-cents issue."

At least two states, New Jersey and New Mexico, have abolished the death penalty in recent years, citing cost as a primary reason. Maryland, too, has considered eliminating the death penalty; officials there have significantly limited the number of murders that can be prosecuted capitally in hopes of reducing costs.

Capital trials cost five times more than first-degree murder trials in which the death penalty is not pursued. A trial averages $116,400 in costs for the defendant, Cook found, compared with $18,600 for a non-capital murder trial. Trials also hijack a prosecutor's office for weeks, a cost that's hard to estimate because it involves salaries for people who handle other matters besides capital murder trials. The average capital trial lasts nearly three weeks, compared to a week for murder trials without the death penalty....

Prosecutors often argue that the option of pursuing the death penalty is a bargaining chip that allows them to secure a plea to the lesser punishment of life in prison without setting foot in a courtroom. Cook found, however, that it was cheaper to try a case in which prosecutors never sought the death penalty than to negotiate a capital case and avoid going to trial. That is due in part to a North Carolina law requiring defendants facing the death penalty to have at least two attorneys.

Some recent related posts on the costs of capital punsihment:

December 28, 2009 at 11:44 AM | Permalink


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We could save a lot more than that by eliminating imprisonment, so let's do that too. I mean, c'mon, we need the money to give to ACORN.

Gads, this theme is getting soooooooooooooo tired.

The penal system -- all of it -- takes up a miniscule portion of government budgets. What really gobbles the dollars is welfare spending, entitlements in particular. So for those who're actually serious about saving money, that's where you'll have to go.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 28, 2009 12:53:42 PM

People who are murdered in prison and their families would disagree. There are more prison murders of prisoners, staff, and visitors than there are executions. This "save money" argument is unmitigated gall. The abolitionists have obstructed the DP to the extreme, and now claim it is too hard and expensive.

We would save $11 million by deterring abolitionists. They should be defunded, and held liable for all injuries caused by their serial killer clients. That would save a lot of money. This study has no credibility, being one sided. Anyone quoting it straight without addressing its bias has no credibility.

The state could save $billions by closing its prisons and police departments. But then, we would have Fallujah. People would spend their full time on security and survival. And the value lost to the economy would far exceed the savings. This cost would include the fall in real estate prices where no one wants to live. We pay government for security. The payment is not set by the taxpayer. It is set by the criminal. If the criminal could be executed at a young age, 100's of crimes would be prevented each year. That would add $billions of value to the state economy.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 28, 2009 1:04:23 PM

The death penalty as it is currently working in this country affects so few that I dont see how converting to LWOP could really trouble anyone as a pratical matter. It just doesn't seem like it would have a significant effect on the crim justice system overall, either in deterrence and accountablity, or as Mr. Otis points out, in overall cost.
The proponents (SCee above) really want to expand the death penalty so that high school kids caught drinking are executed and therefore save society the cost of their future crimes. <---(hyperbole)


Posted by: KRG def attny | Dec 28, 2009 2:13:04 PM

For anyone that paid any attention to New Jersey or New Mexico, you know that neither cost nor the truth played a role in either states abandonement of the death penalty.

New Jersey

Rebuttal of NJ Death Penalty Commissions anti death penalty findings. My four responses to New Jersey Assembly Speake Roberts are beveath his article, in the coment section. . I rebut all of his anti death penalty positions, inclusive of the findings of the NJDPC.


New Mexico

"Rebuttal to Governor Richardson - Repeal of the Death Penalty in New Mexico"


"Why did Gov. Richardson repeal the death penalty? His legacy"


Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Dec 28, 2009 2:27:47 PM

The savings would be even greater in a state like California.

Posted by: Los Angeles Paralegal | Dec 28, 2009 6:11:07 PM

I think tht the cost angle is an appropriate angle to observe. We need forensic accountants to take a look at imprisonment, college sports, and money paid by lobbyists to office holders.

Take college sports. Does anyone really believe that any given sport is a money maker for a university and for the taxpayers. That concept is spoken all the time. If one takes into account the costs of the football stadium and divide by 7 home games for say 40 years then it cannot be paid for by the money taken at the gate or from the television. With imprisonment, often the costs related by the legislators and government officials are the costs of feeding, medical care and guarding. They do not take into account the costs of prosecution, cost of building the prison, etc. The cost to society of punishment are hard to compute. If you take someone who is 17 and lock them up for ten years you have a 27 year old with no education, no skills other than license plate skills, a warped sense of the world and an education in crime. We can not send these people to Australia or Georgia-- although the Governor of California proposes some such scheme. The public seems to reward politicians who are tough on crime. The public needs to reward politicians who are sensible with the public purse. The media shows these pious politician jerks coming out of church on Sunday but those jerks, and the jerks in the media, never speak of that one Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill.

Posted by: mpb | Dec 29, 2009 12:11:46 PM

mpb --

"I think tht the cost angle is an appropriate angle to observe."

So do I -- the first 20 times. But enough is enough.

"The public seems to reward politicians who are tough on crime."

Translation: The public understands that when criminals are in jail, life on the street is safer.

"The public needs to reward politicians who are sensible with the public purse."

Since the main problem with the public purse by leaps and bounds is the explosive growth in entitlement spending -- almost all of it on borrowed money -- I guess we know where being sensible with public expenditures needs to start.

"The media shows these pious politician jerks coming out of church on Sunday but those jerks, and the jerks in the media, never speak of that one Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill."

Biblical commands do not ordain secular law (except in Iran). And more to the point, it is sometimes just to kill, as almost every sane person realizes. We killed by the thousands in WWII, including civilian adults and children, because that was how the War had to be fought. The question is not whether we properly may kill, but under what circumstances. Even Obama understands that there are cases in which the death penalty is warranted. Why don't you?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 29, 2009 4:55:12 PM

Prof. Cook states that in his previous study ". . . he estimated an annual savings of $4 million if the death penalty weren't an option."

That 1993 study actually found the death penalty to be cheaper than an actual life sentence, by a considerable margin.

Duke (North Carolina) Death Penalty Cost Study: Let's be honest

Therefore, it will be most interesting to review his latest study.

Prof. Cook also states: " . . .the rarity of death sentences undermines the deterrent factor."

Rarity of the death penalty may reduce the deterrent effect, but it remains an important deterrent.

23 recent deterrence studies finding for deterrence, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation,

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Dec 29, 2009 6:42:56 PM

Dudley --

The likelihood that 23 studies, by independent researchers using various methods and having various opinions about the death penalty, are ALL wrong, is so small as to have no practical effect. The reason abolitionists will not acknowledge this fact is simple. To admit that the DP saves more innocent life than it takes (assuming it takes any) is to make blanket opposition to the DP morally untenable. Since abolitionists pride themselves on holding the moral high ground, in contrast to their "bloodlusting" opponents, they are simply unable to do this. 'Tis better to preen than to deter murder.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 29, 2009 7:04:50 PM


It is much more than the 23 studies.

The unchallenged reality is that all prospects of a negative outcome deter some. It is a truism.

With or without the 23 studies, the question is NOT, "Does the death penalty deter?". Of course it does. All legal sanctions deter some.

The only question is how much does it deter?

That question will never be a set number that anyone can agree to.

For most anti death penalty folks, it doesn't matter to them, personally. It only matters as point of advocacy. They must deny that the death penalty deters, because agreement for the deterrent effect would severely injure the anti death penalty movement. Therefore, they must deny deterrence, even when they know it is a deterrent.

Personally, for anti death penalty folks it doesn't matter. They find the death penalty wrong, therefore, it doesn't matter that innocent lives are sacrificed by allowing more murderers to live. It matters that the death penalty, for them, is wrong.

I think many of us would find certain sanctions wrong for certain crimes, even when those sanctions would deter criminal activity. It can be justified as an understandable, reasonable and moral position.

However, from a moral and rational standpoint, it is really tough to say: Yes, I will knowingly sacrifice innocent lives by sparing the lives of murderers.

For many and, likely, most, that would be an almost inconceivable trade off.

Therefore, anti death penalty folks must continue saying it doesn't deter, even though they know it does.

With universal acceptance of deterrence, death penalty support would skyrocket, internationally.

Antis cannot allow that to happen.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Dec 29, 2009 9:26:21 PM

Internationally the death penalty has smaller support and is now confined to places like Saudi Arabia, China, and small narrow minded places like the US of A.

Posted by: mpb | Dec 31, 2009 6:01:08 PM

mpb --

I love your locution that the DP is "confined" to the USA, China and Saudi Arabia, etc.


Wake up. According to Amnesty International (http://www.amnesty.org/en/death-penalty/abolitionist-and-retentionist-countries) -- an abolitionist organization and no ally of mine -- the DP exists in both law and in practice in countries with well over half the world's population. This includes what are by far the world's four largest countries (China, India, the USA and Indonesia). It also exists in both law and practice in such disparate countries as Japan, Nigeria and Taiwan.

Amnesty International lists the DP as existing only in law (but not in practice) in South Korea, but that is about to change. There are about 60 prisoners on South Korea's death row.

Now I suppose you'd say that all these counties are, to use your term for trashing the United States, "narrow minded." Let me submit, to the contrary, that the narrow mindedness exists in the gaggle of faux high-minded European countries, still with their noses in the air (where they've been for the past few hundred years), who look down on other racial groups like those found in the Middle East, Africa and the Orient.

I doubt that you really intend to sign on to such an ostensibly racist agenda, but the racial diversity of countries retaining the death penalty is a bit too much to shove under the rug, wouldn't you say?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 1, 2010 8:24:32 PM

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