An Oklahoma inmate’s botched execution Tuesday night has drawn the ire of death penalty opponents across the country and resurrected a centuries-old debate over the technological — and financial — complications of capital punishment in the United States.
Specifically: Does it cost taxpayers more to execute an inmate than to keep him in prison for life?
What Went Wrong in Oklahoma
This wasn’t a routine execution; in fact, it was Oklahoma’s first time using a new, three-drug cocktail, and the results were hardly a hearty endorsement for the combination.
About 15 minutes after a lethal injection was given to Clayton Lockett — who was supposed to undergo the first of two planned executions at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary that night — the prisoner began to writhe, seize and mumble. Lockett lived for 43 minutes after the first injection was administered, even though the execution was stalled; he ultimately died of a heart attack.
The reason behind this experimental new cocktail — which, The Atlantic reported, included a dosage of a drug that no other state has ever used to successfully execute an inmate — lies in supply and demand.
U.S. pharmacies no longer supply sodium thiopental, a crucial ingredient in the lethal mixture — it’s the anesthetic that paralyzes the body before another drug stops the heart. According to Vox.com, this has forced many state penitentiaries to either look abroad or jerry-rig their own mixtures at compounding pharmacies, mixing custom drugs that are less regulated by the government.
It’s a money-saving fix, but some are noticing that it’s paying off more than it should. As Newsweek asked, “Why are high-ranking prison officials from America’s death penalty states showing up with wads of cash at under-regulated pharmacies, swapping briefcases in the desert and rifling through odd inventories of untested anesthetics?”
The Cost to the Taxpayer of Botched (or Successful) Executions
Whether they’re in prison for a short- or long-term stay, it isn’t cheap to house inmates. It isn’t cheap to kill them, either.
Last year, The New York Times reported that it costs $167,731 a year to feed, house and guard inmates in New York City.
The average national price is actually significantly lower — $28,893.40, according to the Federal Register.
Death penalty advocates often point to these substantial room-and-board fees to support their stance. Interestingly, however, executions also rack up a hefty pricetag for the taxpayer — it just happens before the sentencing.
A 2013 study by the Kansas Judicial Council determined that defending a death penalty case costs four times more than defending a case where capital punishment is not sought.
In Idaho, a study from the Office of Performance Evaluations found that the State Appellate Public Defenders office spends a lot more time trying (and then appealing) capital cases than noncapital ones — seven months more on trials, two months more on appeals, on average.
Many death penalty abolitionists argue that a system without the death penalty will save state governments millions — even billions — of dollars that can be reallocated to crime prevention. Take, for example, a 2011 study published in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, which found that California’s justice system would cost taxpayers a lot less if it eliminated capital punishment altogether. Since 1978, $4 billion dollars less, to be exact.
Ultimately, more cost-benefit analyses will need to be done at a state level. But, finances aside, if Oklahoma was looking for a thrifty method to kill an inmate humanely, this wasn’t it.
Photo credit: Ken Piorkowski