Nebraska: Abolition of the Death Penalty Will Save Millions

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As was widely broadcast last week, Nebraska lawmakers outlawed the death penalty, overriding Gov. Pete Rickets’ veto that would have kept it intact. Reuters reported that it is the first majority Republican state to do so since 1973, when North Dakota outlawed it.

Cornhuskers have been debating the issue for years. In 2013, the Sioux City Journal (Journal) revealed that the average death penalty case costs $3 million to prosecute, compared to $1.1 million for life-without-parole cases. At that time, Nebraska had spent an estimated $100 million on death penalty cases since 1976, when the United States Supreme Court affirmed its constitutionality.

Citing Nebraska Department of Corrections figures, the Journal also pointed out that it costs an average of about $36,000 a year to keep a person in a maximum-security prison. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average time from sentence to execution for all inmates 1977 and 2013 was close to 11.5 years; in 2013, the number was 15 years, six months. In Nebraska, using the 36-year average for the calculation, the state spends more than $400,000 per inmate sentenced to death.

The Death Penalty Information Center points out that Nebraska has actually only executed three people since 1976, and it currently has 11 people on death row. Thus, absent the death penalty’s abolition there, the Department of Corrections would have spent more than $4.5 million housing those men by the time of their executions.

Another cost consideration is the legal process. One of the reasons the death penalty is so expensive are the appeals, which may go all the way to the United States Supreme Court. A May 1, 2014, article on Forbes addressed the situation in several states.

For example, in Kansas, a February 2014 report of the judicial council disclosed that cases tried to a jury in which the prosecutor seeks the death penalty spent 40.14 days in court, versus 16.79 days for non-death penalty cases. Housing costs in Kansas are not inconsequential either: Prisoners incarcerated under a death sentence cost approximately $49,380 each per year to house, double the cost of general population prisoners.

A March 2014 Idaho report, "Financial Costs of the Death Penalty," divulged that:

  • Of 251 defendants charged with first-degree murder from 1998 to 2013, for those who went to trial, reaching a judgment of guilty or not guilty took seven months longer for capital cases than for noncapital cases;
  • The mere possibility of a death sentence triggers additional costs, including the requirement that two county public defenders represent the defendant, a mandatory review of all death sentences by the Idaho Supreme Court, and the maintenance of a “certain level of readiness” for executions; and
  • About 70 percent of the additional cost associated with death penalty case comes from the trial phase; additional factors that complicate and lengthen these trials are longer and more extensive jury selection, the mitigation and sentencing processes, and additional time spent in preparation.

More generally, in California the annual cost associated with death penalty cases is $137 million compared with $11.5 million for life-without-parole cases. A 2011 study by the Death Penalty Information Center showed that since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, the state’s capital punishment system has cost taxpayers $4 billion more than a system that has life in prison without the possibility of parole. What’s more, the study states “Californians will spend an additional $5 billion to $7 billion over the cost of a life without parole structure to fund the broken system” between 2011 and 2050.

After last week’s veto override in Nebraska, there are now 19 states plus the District of Columbia that do not impose the death penalty: Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

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