NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Justice Carries a Price Tag

January 9, 2002

When a defendant is brought to trial on a capital charge, most of us focus on the justice of the outcome. But there is an economic side to the proceedings that is often overlooked: the cost to taxpayers.

Rural counties with small taxpayer populations are often hardest hit.

  • Just prosecuting a capital crime can cost an average of $200,000 to $300,000, according to a conservative estimate by the Texas Office of Court Administration.
  • Add indigent-defense lawyers, an almost-automatic appeal and a trial transcript, and death-penalty cases can often cost many times that amount.

Such costs can be an unexpected and severe budgetary shock to smaller counties -- which must often raise taxes, cut services or both in order to pay for the proceedings.

  • Dartmouth College economist Katherine Baicker has found that counties that bring a death-penalty case have tax rates 1.6 percent higher than those that don't.
  • She found that counties with a death penalty also spend 3.3 percent less on law enforcement and highways.
  • The same pattern of raised taxes and spending cuts hits all death-penalty counties regardless of size, she discovered.

Experts say the fiscal fallout can linger for years. And death-penalty cases are getting more expensive, due to DNA tests and appellate-court decisions that require longer jury selection and more expensive defense attorneys.

To mitigate the financial burden, local officials in some states are pressing state governments for relief. Other states have begun to set up what amount to death-penalty risk pools -- allowing counties to pay in annually and receive funds in the event of a death-penalty case.

Source: Russell Gold, "Counties Struggle With High Costs of Prosecuting Death-Penalty Cases," Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2002.

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