Botched Execution Raises Question: What’s the Cost to Taxpayers?

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?

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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?”

Related: Bradley Manning Ruling Could Cost Taxpayers $1,491,729

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

About the Author

As senior editor and video producer, Lucy Mueller writes and edits articles and creates video content for GOBankingRates. Lucy graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in cinema-television production.