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The Cost of the Death Penalty in Maryland

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Document date: March 01, 2008
Released online: March 06, 2008

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

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This study assesses the death penalty's costs to Maryland taxpayers by examining a sample of the 1,136 death-eligible murder cases occurring between 1978 and 1999. We find that an average capital-eligible case in which prosecutors did not seek the death penalty will cost approximately $1.1 million over the lifetime of the case. A capital-eligible case in which prosecutors unsuccessfully sought the death penalty will cost $1.8 million and a capital-eligible case resulting in a death sentence will cost approximately $3 million. In total, we forecast that the lifetime costs to Maryland taxpayers of these capitally-prosecuted cases will be $186 million.


Prior research on the costs of capital punishment in other states unambiguously finds that capital cases are more expensive to prosecute than non-capital cases. However, much of the past research relied on limited data and generally studied only a small number of cases. This study tests whether the death penalty resulted in additional costs to Maryland taxpayers and fills a gap in the extant literature by accounting for potentially confounding factors not addressed in prior studies.

A retrospective observational design was used to evaluate this question. Data used in this analysis were developed from several sources. The foundation for the analysis is case data collected by University of Maryland researchers for a 2004 study of disparities in the application of the death penalty in Maryland (Paternoster, Brame, Bacon and Ditchfield 2004). Paternoster and colleagues identified homicides that were eligible to be prosecuted as capital cases in Maryland. His sample includes all cases where the murder occurred between August 1978 and September 1999. From these data, we identified a census of death-eligible, guilty-verdict cases with 1,136 observations, including 162 cases in which a death notice was filed, and 56 death sentences. We estimate the total cost of processing these cases.

In order to estimate the costs of each stage of case processing, we turned to two additional sources. First, we searched administrative databases containing official records on individual case processing, using the Maryland Judiciary Case Search (MDJCS) database and the federal PACER database. All records that matched our sample were coded into our research database. Second, estimates of the time attorneys, judges and support staff spent processing these cases were developed from semi-structured interviews and survey data.

Complete administrative data on case processing were available for 509 of the 1,136 cases. This sample of 509 cases was weighted to resemble the population of 1,136. In addition, a propensity score analysis was conducted to adjust estimates to account for the possibility that capitally prosecuted cases may have been more egregious, on average, than the typical case that did not receive a death notice. If true, these cases would have been more expensive to prosecute even if no death statute had been in place. Finally, we estimate the cost to Maryland taxpayers associated with each stage of case processing.

We estimated two key costs: 1) those associated with the filing of a death notice; and, 2) those associated with the imposition of a death sentence. We compared the costs for these cases with the cost of processing a capital-eligible case in which no death notice was filed. In this study, the nodeath- notice cases represent the cost of processing a felony homicide case in Maryland as if there was no death penalty.

(End of excerpt. The entire paper is available in PDF format.)

Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice

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