Neb. Economist Says Death Penalty Burdens Taxpayers

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By Lance J. Rogers

Aug. 15 — It costs Nebraska an extra $14.6 million a year to keep the death penalty on the books, according to a study commissioned by death penalty opponents in that state.

“To put it in other words, if the death penalty stays repealed and we leave in place life imprisonment, the state will save approximately $14.6 million annually,” Creighton University professor of economics Ernie Goss told reporters at an Aug. 15 press conference announcing the results of his study.

The report comes on the heels of a survey released Aug. 14 that was commissioned by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which suggests that Nebraskans favor reinstating capital punishment by a 2-1 margin.

“The poll shows that Nebraskans continue to support the death penalty for the worst of the worst among us,” said Don Stenberg (R), a former Nebraska attorney general and honorary co-chair of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty. Stenberg is the current Nebraska state treasurer.

Nebraskans will decide the fate of capital punishment at the ballot box on Nov. 8 and both the pro- and anti-death penalty forces are jockeying to win over voters.

Failed Government Program

Goss's study, titled “ The Economic Impact of the Death Penalty on the State of Nebraska: A Taxpayer Burden?” supports with hard evidence what the Legislature knew when it abolished the death penalty in 2015, state Sen. Colby Coash (R) told reporters. “This costs us $14.6 million a year and we haven't got anything from it,” Coash said.

“This is a government program that's not working,” he said.

The Nebraska Legislature abolished the death penalty in 2015 and narrowly overrode the governor's veto of LB 268, which replaced the death penalty with life without parole (97 CrL 240, 6/3/15).

Coash was a vocal leader in the effort to repeal the death penalty.

Pro-death penalty forces dispute the study's conclusions, noting that a report from the Legislature's Fiscal Office indicated that LB 268 would have no financial impact.

“Opponents of the death penalty want Nebraskans to believe that there will be millions of taxpayer dollars saved by eliminating the death penalty,” said Bob Evnen, a co-founder of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty. “The legislature’s Fiscal Office says this just isn’t true.”

The “ Nebraska Death Penalty Repeal Referendum” asks voters to repeal LB 268 and keep the death penalty as a possible penalty for first-degree murder.

The Nebraska Supreme Court gave referendum supporters a boost in July when it turned aside a technical challenge raised by anti-death penalty forces ( Hargesheimer v. Gale, No. S-16-107, 2016 BL 219616 (Neb. July 8, 2016)).

Economics 101

Goss told reporters that he analyzed five areas that make capital cases more costly than cases where the maximum punishment is life without parole: Higher defense costs, extra effort in jury selection, length of capital trials, incarceration costs and expenses associated with decades of appeals. In Nebraska, defendants facing capital charges are each entitled to two attorneys.

Since 1976, Nebraska has sentenced 33 individuals to death, but it has executed only three, the report says. Six death row inmates died in prison, one conviction was vacated, and courts commuted 13 sentences, it said. The remaining 10 death row inmates are still in the appellate pipeline, according to Goss.

“If I look at it purely from an economic standpoint, in the fall I vote to retain LB 268,” Goss said.

The study was commissioned by Retain a Just Nebraska, the advocacy group that is urging Nebraska voters to retain the capital punishment ban when they go to the polls this fall.

Goss said he used U.S. Census Bureau statistics on justice expenses and undertook a “meta-analysis” of data collected in other states in putting together his report.

National Scope

Nationally, the study concludes that death penalty states spend about 3.54 percent of their state budgets on criminal justice, whereas non-death penalty states spend roughly 2.93 percent. On average, the death penalty costs a state $23.2 million more per year than alternative sentences, the report adds.

In Florida, death penalty cases cost $51 million extra per year, the report says. In California, where voters this fall will also decide whether to keep the death penalty, capital punishment costs $121.2 million extra per year, according to the report.

Californians face a stark choice: Fix the problems that have prevented the death penalty from being enforced or do away with capital punishment altogether. One proposal would replace all death sentences with life without parole, whereas the other initiative would not only reiterate the state's commitment to the death penalty but would also streamline the execution process (99 CrL 541, 7/20/16).

The death penalty is legal in 31 states. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have outlawed capital punishment.

Just two weeks ago, the Delaware Supreme Court struck down its death penalty scheme, saying it gives judges too much discretion to make the actual findings required to impose death (99 CrL 603, 8/10/16).

If the ban stands, Delaware would become the 20th jurisdiction to have abolished capital punishment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lance J. Rogers in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at

For More Information

“The Economic Impact of the Death Penalty on the State of Nebraska: A Taxpayer Burden?” is available at

Nebraska's “Death Penalty Repeal Referendum” is available at

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