James Holmes: Death Penalty Costs 3x More Than a Life Sentence


The prosecuting district attorney in the case of James Holmes, accused shooter in last year’s Aurora, Colorado, movie theater killings, made a mistake when he decided to pursue the death penalty instead of accepting the defendant’s guilty plea in exchange for life imprisonment without parole.

The reason, however unfortunate, is economic and not limited just to the case of the Aurora shootings. "Justice for all" completely loses its meaning when set alongside the pursuit of the death penalty.

Note the words "pursuit of" here. In Nevada, pursuit of the death penalty takes, on average, 1211 hours more time for public defenders per case than similar non-capital cases. Kansas spends roughly 70% more on each death penalty case, and Maryland spends nearly $3 million per case, or about 3 times what it costs to pursue non-capital convictions. California spends nearly $170 million per year under its current death penalty system, and could save an estimated $5 to $7 billion over the next fifty years if such sentences were reduced to life without parole.

The study of California’s death penalty system also suggests that in the same 50-year period, about 740 inmates will enter death row while only 14 will actually be executed. Nearly 500 prisoners on death row will die of old age or other causes before the state even has the chance to carry out the executions. 

These stats paint a clear picture Americans will spend billions of dollars pursuing the death penalty and taking up countless hours of overworked public defenders' and prosecutors' time to sentence prisoners to a death they may never even face. Meanwhile, murder cases will go unsolved, juveniles will fall through the cracks, prison infrastructure will crumble and the accused will be arraigned en masse without adequate representation. All this, not even to mention the positive things these billions could be spent on outside of the justice system in state budgets.

Senior Judge Charles Harris of the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Florida, in an opinion piece for the Gainesville Sun said "most people who support the death penalty believe it is more cost effective than life in prison. Perhaps at one time, when executions were swift and sure, this may have been the case. It is not now." Harris says that the slow justice system, the time required to prepare for trial, the numerous and complex appeals procedures, and many other factors actually make the costs of capital cases many times that of life imprisonment.

It’s not that slow justice is bad thing; being sure before carrying out the sentence is of paramount importance, which is why there are so many procedures assuring the fair treatment of those sentenced to death. The problem isn't the death sentence itself, it’s the numbers surrounding those sentences that hurt our communities often far more than any one person ever could. 

While James Holmes allegedly committed crimes that, I believe, would warrant a death sentence, the pursuit of the death sentence itself in any case is too costly to the public at large. Given this, there are two options either we start to reserve the pursuit of the ultimate punishment for those who commit truly heinous crimes such as mass murder, or we eliminate the penalty entirely. Maybe Holmes' crimes do warrant the pursuit in this case, but since it seems pursuing capital punishment, in most cases, only provides justice to the few while foregoing justice for all, I think it’s time we abolish the death penalty.