How much does the death penalty cost Colorado taxpayers?

The full cost of a death penalty case is extremely hard to calculate because the majority of the death penalty’s costs never appear as line items in any budget. They are buried in a thicket of legal proceedings and hours spent by judges, clerks, prosecutors, and other law enforcement agencies. Certain core costs are discoverable, such as those outlined below.

In Colorado, it costs 20 times as much to prosecute a capital murder case as it costs to prosecute a first degree murder case where the death penalty is not sought.

  • In Colorado, housing a death row prisoner is roughly 17% more expensive than housing an inmate as part of the general population.
  • It costs the state 15% more per year to house a death row inmate than to house an inmate who has received a sentence of life with no possibility of parole. This does not include the cost of hearing appeals.

Why does it cost so much?
Because a life is on the line, and it is so important to safeguard against possible wrongful conviction or other mistakes, capital cases involve more lawyers, more witnesses, more experts, a longer jury selection process, more pre-trial motions, an entirely separate trial for sentencing, and countless other expenses – creating exorbitant costs even before a single appeal is filed.

Despite all these safeguards, nationally, many death penalty trials are found to be significantly flawed and must be re-done, sometimes more than once, adding to the high cost. There is no way to shorten the process and maintain a legitimate justice system.

Who pays for the death penalty?

In Colorado, anytime an elected District Attorney chooses to prosecute a death penalty trial, the residents of that county pay the bill for the prosecution of that death penalty trial via the local taxes. The cost of defense and judicial services are paid by the State of Colorado.

The death penalty’s high costs add up to more than just dollars. One of the hidden costs of the death penalty is in the time it takes to pursue one capital case, law enforcement could solve and prosecute scores of other cases. Instead, many crimes go unsolved, and the perpetrators are still on the streets, free to commit more serious crimes.

Can we make the system cheaper?

Many of the extra costs are legally mandated to reduce the risk of executing an innocent person. Even these safeguards are not enough. Since 1973, at least 140 people have been exonerated from death row after waiting years for the truth to come out. Streamlining the process would virtually guarantee the execution of an innocent person.

In Colorado cases where the death penalty is sought, it is rarely imposed by a jury. A former Denver District Attorney has been quoted as saying that getting a death verdict in Denver is comparable to the defendant being struck by lightning. Yet taxpayers are saddled with the death penalty’s pre-trial and trial costs even in cases where the defendant is not sentenced to death.

In Colorado, alternative sentences exist that punish the truly guilty while not depleting scarce resources that could otherwise be used for important public safety programs and for supporting victims of violent crime and their families.