Money for Nothing? The Financial Cost of New Jersey's Death Penalty

By Mary E. Forsberg


Feelings toward capital punishment have varied over time. Among democratic nations, few now impose it. In the United States, 38 states have death penalty laws while 12 have rejected the ultimate punishment in favor of other strong sentences, such as life without parole. Many death penalty states, including New Jersey, rarely impose it. The death penalty is an emotional topic but apart from the moral questions the death penalty evokes, apart from questions of whether it serves as a deterrent, apart from debate over whether it has a proper role in the administration of justice, the death penalty-when everything else is stripped away-is a matter of public policy.

And, as with any public policy, questions are raised from time to time about whether capital punishment is a sensible use of tax dollars. Answering such questions, regardless of the particular policy, requires dispassionate analysis. It is the aim of this report to put aside the emotion and focus on getting a handle on the financial costs of capital punishment in the state.

It needs to be made clear at the start that the financial implications of some public policies are easier to ascertain than others. The work that went into this effort was hampered by reluctance on the part of many state officials to supply what should be fairly basic information about how money appropriated in the state budget is spent. We have, however, been able to piece together what we feel is a credible analysis by going through the phases of death penalty cases in the judicial and criminal justice systems, and looking at the various tax-funded entities that are involved in the process. We have also relied on research conducted in other states-in most cases by the states themselves.

Determining the precise financial cost of maintaining a capital punishment system requires comparing a capital trial-where the death penalty is imposed, appealed and followed either by a reversal or an eventual execution-with a non-capital murder case which goes to trial and is appealed. Few states maintain records to allow such a detailed comparison. New Jersey is no exception.

As the high stakes of having a death penalty would imply, capital punishment occupies a unique place in criminal justice. Attorneys spend long hours on capital cases, which almost always require more time than comparable non-capital murder trials. Capital cases take a disproportionate amount of court time when compared to the courts’ overall caseloads. The costs to the Department of Corrections of maintaining a Capital Sentence Unit (death row) are greater than the upkeep of other prisoners. It takes longer to seat a jury in death penalty cases, and jurors spend more time in court listening to prosecution and defense arguments and deliberating than jurors in non-capital cases.

In spite of-or perhaps because of-the extensive resources allocated to maintain a capital punishment system, New Jersey has executed no one since the state re-established the death penalty in 1982.

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