The fiscal cost of Ohio’s death penalty

A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility shows an electric chair and gurney Aug. 29, 2001 in Lucasville, Ohio. Photo by Mike Simons/Getty Images.

In the spring of 2015, I was living in Omaha, Nebraska, and my friends and I, being the political junkies we are, were all watching as the Nebraska legislature voted one by one to override the governor’s veto to end the use of the death penalty in the state.

It wasn’t the problem of potential misplaced justice that ultimately led to that repeal. It wasn’t the well-documented racial disparities in death penalty sentencing. It was the problem of costs.

“If any other program was as inefficient as this, we would eliminate it,” said Republican state Sen. Colby Coash, a lead sponsor of the Nebraska bill.

Earlier this week, Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder channeled Coash, saying he looked at the issue “from a pure fiscal standpoint,” arguing the law is leading to higher costs without better outcomes.

The weight of the evidence suggests that death penalty cases are more expensive than life without parole cases: a 2016 fiscal analysis reviewed fourteen state and federal studies on the topic and all found death penalty cases to be more expensive than life without parole cases, usually to the tune of $1.2 million more spent on death penalty cases in 2015 dollars. 

The reason for this disparity in cost is that death penalty cases are usually much longer and require more defense attorneys and cases to make final determinations, much of which is due to US.. Supreme Court rulings on the practice.

Unfortunately, we don’t have good data on costs associated with the death penalty in Ohio. A study comparing costs of death penalty cases and life without parole cases in the state of Ohio hasn’t been conducted in over a decade.

Despite this lack of state-specific data, Ohio’s Legislative Service Commission, the research arm of the state legislature, has weighed in on this topic. 

In a 2018 fiscal note on a bill that would have prohibited death penalty sentences for people with “serious” mental illness, the Commission found that studies of the death penalty in other state suggested capital cases could cost $1-3 million more than life imprisonment cases and that capital cases cost 2.5 to 5 times as much as non-capital cases.

The Indiana Legislative Services Agency also conducted an analysis of the death penalty in 2010. In this study, the Agency found that the average death penalty case in Indiana from 2000 to 2007 cost about $170,000 more than the average life without parole case, which comes out conservatively to about $210,000 in 2020 dollars.

The state of Ohio currently has a total of 138 people on death row. This means that if these cases were tried as life without parole, the state could have saved $29 million under the more conservative Indiana Legislative Agency numbers to over $400 million under the higher-end Ohio Legislative Service Commission estimates.

Most people come to their opinion about the death penalty for moral, ethical, or religious reasons. But a low-end estimate of the cost of this seldom-used program could fund state fraud prevention efforts for a year and a high-end estimate could fund all the school construction in the state for a year. Whatever your moral commitments, those are numbers worth paying attention to.

Rob Moore
Rob Moore is the principal for Scioto Analysis, a public policy analysis firm based in Columbus. Moore has worked as an analyst in the public and nonprofit sectors and has analyzed diverse issue areas such as economic development, environment, education, and public health. He holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Denison University.