Several articles in the news recently proclaim that some states are considering abolishing capital punishment as they assume it will save money, but they may be incorrect according to the results of this study by a Sacramento organization, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (disclosure—I was once on their board of directors and am a strong supporter of their work), one of the few national organizations tracking capital punishment issues on behalf of crime victims.
An excerpt from their press release announcing the study.
“Legislatures expecting a large savings in trial costs from repealing the death penalty may be in for a disappointment, according to a study released today by the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. The most widely cited estimates ignore or minimize an important cost-saving effect of having the death penalty available.
“In states where the death penalty is the maximum punishment, a larger number of murder defendants are willing to plead guilty and receive a life sentence. The greater cost of trials where the prosecution does seek the death penalty is offset, at least in part, by the savings from avoiding trial altogether in cases where the defendant pleads guilty. Although this effect is well known to people working in the field, there appears to be no prior study to determine the actual size of this effect.
“An example of the plea bargaining effect occurred two weeks ago in Navarro County, Texas. Shaun Earl Arender confessed to the sexual assault and murder of six-year-old Hanna Mack and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in return for avoiding the death penalty. If Texas did not have the death penalty, this case would almost certainly have gone to trial. Sentencing expert Douglas Berman of Ohio State University notes on his blog, “I think an important and underexamined aspect of the death penalty is its impact on plea bargaining and other pre-trial aspects of the investigation and prosecution of horrible murders.”
“The study released today, The Death Penalty and Plea Bargaining of Life Sentences, analyzed data gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics from 33 large urban counties. The study examined how many of the murder cases were resolved by guilty plea, how many went to trial, and how many resulted in a sentence of at least 20 years.
“In states with the death penalty, the average county obtained sentences of 20 years or more in 50.7% of cases where the defendant was charged with murder and convicted of murder or voluntary manslaughter. These sentences were obtained through a guilty plea in 18.9% of the cases. In states without the death penalty, sentences of 20 years or more were obtained in 40.5% of such cases, but only 5.0% of those were guilty pleas, a little over a quarter of the number in the death penalty states.”