In June 2016, the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice created a working group to study Utah’s death penalty. I was honored to be able to serve on this committee alongside dedicated professionals from the Utah Attorney General’s Office, county district attorney's offices, the Utah Board of Probation and Parole, Utah Crime Victims’ Legal Clinic and others.
We were tasked with examining specific components of our state’s death penalty, one of them being the relative financial cost of seeking the death penalty as compared with having a maximum sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. This study confirmed what past Utah studies have demonstrated — Utah’s death penalty is far more expensive than life imprisonment.
The commission’s report first reviews a 2012 Utah study which estimated that the cost of one death penalty case from trial to execution (compared with a case of life without parole in which the death penalty was never on the table) cost taxpayers an additional $1,660,900. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. The report goes on to note that when you take into account the additional costs incurred in all 165 aggravated murder cases in which death was on the table during the period of study (1997-2016), then the cost soared to about $40 million, with only two of the cases resulting in death sentences. Thus, the real cost of seeking the death penalty is $20 million per death sentence.
Many might wonder how the death penalty, which theoretically prevents years of prison housing costs, could be so much more expensive than life imprisonment. The answer is found in examining the difference in the legal process when death is on the table. The U.S. Supreme Court has mandated that with capital cases, additional safeguards must be in place, which result in additional expenses before trial, during trial and on appeal. These extra expenses begin mounting as soon as each death-eligible case is filed and continue until and unless the state affirmatively takes death off the table.
These costs can’t be curtailed. Every state that has studied the issue has shown its death penalty system is far more expensive than having an ultimate punishment of life without parole. Utah is no different. Our report analyzed studies from over a dozen different states and concludes: “While methodologies vary across states, these studies share a unity in finding an increased cost associated with seeking the death penalty.” Every time, the death penalty is far more expensive.32 comments on this story
In sum, not only is Utah’s death penalty system far more expensive than previously understood, it is also grossly ineffective in accomplishing its stated goal of achieving death sentences. The stark reality is that every million dollars spent keeping our death penalty on the books is a million dollars that can’t go to more effective crime prevention measures, or to improving our schools or even to be left alone in taxpayers’ bank accounts. This is one of the issues that policymakers should take into account in evaluating the continued desirability and feasibility of maintaining the death penalty in Utah.
Ralph Dellapiana is a member of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice death penalty working group, as well as the director of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.