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December 4, 2014

Nevada completes detailed accounting of costs of death penalty cases

As reported in this local article, headlined "High cost of death penalty could affect its future in Nevada," the Silver State's audits have recently completed a detailed report on how much taxpayer gold is typically spent in capital cases. Here are the details:

Nevada’s criminal justice system spends nearly twice as much handling death penalty cases compared with murder cases where capital punishment isn’t sought, according to a report released Tuesday by state auditors.

The state-mandated study, which surveyed data from 27 state and local agencies, gives ammunition to death penalty opponents who have failed to defeat public support for capital punishment using moral objections. It is, by far, Nevada’s most comprehensive study on the controversial practice and will serve as a law makers' guide for years to come....

Auditors assembled the 105-page report by sampling data from 28 cases, calculating costs associated with legal counsel — both defense and prosecution — as well as for money spent on court proceedings and incarceration.

Here are three highlights from the document's release:

From a suspect’s arrest through his or her final days behind bars, officials spend at least $1.3 million on murder cases where convicts are sentenced to death but not executed — that’s $532,000 more compared with murder cases where capital punishment wasn't sought. Litigation costs, including the trial and appeal phase, averaged about three times more for death penalty versus non-death penalty cases. And expenses are similar for all death penalty cases, regardless of whether a sentence is given or not.

Among all prison inmates convicted of murder, costs are highest for people on death row. There were 83 people sentenced to death in Nevada as of late last year. Prosecutors could have potentially saved an estimated $44 million by never pursuing corporal punishment in those cases....

Nevada's per capita death penalty rate ranks fourth in the country and tops Texas and California, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. But the state's death chamber is seldom used, and only a dozen people have been executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the capital punishment in 1976. Of those, only one died against his will. The last execution in Nevada happened more than eight years ago.

It’s likely the study underestimated the cost of death penalty cases because of underreporting from government agencies....

The study’s findings fall in line with previous research examining the financial burden of capital murder cases — a study released this year by the Kansas Judicial Council found that defending a death penalty case costs as much as four times more than other murder cases.

Critics of the practice hope Nevada’s study will bolster efforts to erode support for capital punishment. “A lot of people who favor the death penalty think it’s cheaper,” said Las Vegas criminal defense attorney Lisa Rasmussen, who also watched Tuesday's meeting from Las Vegas. “Once people understand and they’re informed, maybe things will change.”

The full 100+ page Nevada legislative audit document released this week, which carries the exciting title "Fiscal Costs of the Death Penalty," can be accessed at this link.

December 4, 2014 at 09:03 AM | Permalink


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This is pretty weak tea for driving policy. Putting a few numbers into this: Nevada has a population of about 3 million, a state budget of $6 billion per year, and sentences about 6 per year to death. The cost of capital punishment, then, is about $3 million per year, $1 per citizen per year, or 1/2000 of the state budget.

If this deterred even one murder per year it would be a bargain. (Not that I believe it does. In fact I see it increasing crime by coarsening society and diminishing respect for law.)

Posted by: Boffin | Dec 4, 2014 9:52:38 AM

I think Boffin might be right -- esp. since the data might be better where there are more cases -- but there are many soft supporters of the death penalty. And, if as you say, the d.p. is not a deterrent, the cost would be one more nail in the coffin.

It also can serve as a window into costs in general.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 4, 2014 10:20:48 AM

Cheap. Worth every penny.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 7, 2014 1:07:36 PM

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