What costs more the death penalty or life in prison?

YAKIMA, Wash-  Many were outraged at the announcement that the man accused of killing three West Valley people would not face the death penalty.  Some comments on our website and Facebook page asked about the costs involved.

So what costs more? capital punishment or life behind bars?

It's impossible to be exact because there are a lot unpredictable circumstances and costs that no state agency has calculated.

However, from our calculations, the death penalty from beginning to end would have cost more, but just how much more is hard to say.

While the death penalty is the most final of punishments it's far from a quick process.  And using a 2006 study by the state bar association the costs add up. For example

"A defendant facing the death penalty is entitled to two attorneys, of course the costs for defense attorneys are higher", says Joann Moore, Director of the Washington State Office of Public Defense.

Add prosecution costs, defense costs, then appeals and the cost is over one million dollars more than non-death penalty cases.

Trial Attorneys           $467,000

Court Costs                $70,000

Appeals                      $100,800

Personal Restraint     

Petition                       $152,900

Habeas Corpus

Petition                        $238,000

Misc. Petitions               ?

                                   = $1,028,700+  MORE than a non-death penalty case

With the exception of a man convicted last year, the seven Washington inmates on death row now have been there an average of 14 years; add over another half million in prison costs not counting the extra expense of death row.

 Per Prisoner Per year = $43,352*


14 years =                      $606,928*

*Not counting the higher cost for death row inmates

"Death row would be housed within a level five secure unit.  It gets expensive because it's more intensive from a security standpoint and a security staffing standpoint", says Dan Patcholke, Directors of Prisons for the Washington state Department of Corrections.

Last year's execution of Cal Brown cost nearly $100,000. 

Execution Costs

(2010 Cal Brown Execution)

Overtime                  $48,771.66

Straight Time            $27,090.93

Wages                      $75,862.59

Travel                        $5,745.54

Goods & Services      $16,205.96

                                 = $97,814.09

So the ballpark price tag of the death penalty in Washington State is $1.7 million, not including some appeals and petitions.

Total Estimated Death Penalty Costs

Court                        $1,028,700

Prison                       $606,928

Execution                   $97,815


"The attorneys in the cases are required basically to leave no stone unturned, in terms of what evidence they're examining", says Moore.

In the alternative, first-degree aggravated murder would be punished with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Washington taxpayers pay about $35,897 a year per prisoner.  That would be about $1,256,395 million to house a 29-year-old like Kevin Harper for life.

"Both mental health and health care costs seem to go up as you keep people for longer periods of time", says Patcholke.

However even leaving out some death penalty costs, the death penalty ($1.7 million) would still likely have been the more expensive option than life in prison ($1.3 million) for a hypothetical guilty verdict for Kevin Harper.

To clarify, the Yakima County Prosecutor said that the costs of a capital case did not figure into his decision.  He told us he did not believe he had a strong enough case to pursue the death penalty.