KUSA 9News presented misleading death penalty cost comparison


Reporting on proposed legislation to repeal Colorado's death penalty and use the money saved to create a "cold-case" investigations unit, KUSA 9News reported that "nobody has done a study" comparing the costs of execution versus long-term incarceration. In fact, legislative analysts cite readily available statistics to assert that the state could save millions of dollars by repealing the death penalty.

During a February 7 report regarding legislation that would repeal the state's death penalty and use the expected financial savings to fund "cold-case" murder investigations, KUSA 9News reporter Anastasiya Bolton stated that "nobody has done a study" comparing the cost of incarcerating prisoners for life versus the cost of executing them. Immediately following that statement, Bolton implied that putting convicts to death nevertheless is cheaper than incarcerating them for long periods, reporting, "The Department of Corrections in Colorado ... can only tell us that it costs about 27,000 dollars a year to keep an inmate, and it's about 86 dollars for chemicals for its -- his execution, or her execution."

However, Bolton neglected to report readily available figures from proponents of the legislation and legislative analysts who asserted that the state could save millions of dollars in litigation-related expenses alone by repealing the death penalty.

From the February 7 broadcast of KUSA's 9News at 5 p.m.:

ADELE ARAKAWA (co-anchor): One state legislator wants to abolish the death penalty and use the money to create a "cold-case" unit." At a hearing today, the issue turned into a debate over capital punishment. Two men are currently on death row in Colorado -- Edward Montour and Nathan Dunlap. Both are appealing their sentences. 9News reporter Anastasiya Bolton joins us from the Capitol. Anastasiya, supporters of this bill say capital punishment takes too long and the money could be better spent.


BOLTON: The House Judiciary Committee, as I mentioned, is still meeting and still hearing from both sides on this issue. They have not voted, and they expected to vote sometime tonight. In case you are wondering how much it costs to house a criminal for the length of his lifetime or how much it costs to put one to death, well, nobody tells -- nobody has done a study on this. The Department of Corrections in Colorado says they simply don't know; they can only tell us that it costs about 27,000 dollars a year to keep an inmate, and it's about 86 dollars for chemicals for its -- his execution, or her execution. So really, nobody seems to have done a study on the overall cost of this.

Contrary to Bolton's comparative cost "analysis," reporting by other media outlets noted that House Bill 1094's sponsor, state Rep. Paul Weissmann (D-Louisville), has argued in favor of the bill largely on the merits of the net fiscal gain it would provide for the state. According to a February 8 Denver Post article, "Weissmann, who tries perennially to get rid of capital punishment, is using a financial argument with this bill. Colorado would save an estimated $4.5 million on prosecution and defense attorney fees, mostly at local district attorney's offices, by doing away with the death penalty, he said." The Rocky Mountain News also noted on February 8 that Weissmann estimated that since the state's last execution in 1997, "$40 million has been spent by prosecutors, the attorney general and public defenders on capital-punishment trials and appeals." Despite these outlays, Colorado has executed just one person in nearly 40 years, and there are currently only two people on death row.

Furthermore, a fiscal note accompanying HB 1094 prepared by the nonpartisan Colorado Legislative Council (CLC) concluded that special legal costs associated with Colorado's capital punishment law amount to approximately $770,000 annually:

Department of Law. The bill will reduce expenditures in the Department of Law by $350,255 per year and 4.0 FTE [full-time equivalent]. The Attorney General's Office currently funds four attorneys to prosecute capital crimes. Repealing the death penalty eliminates the need for these General Fund positions.

Judicial Branch, Office of the State Public Defender. The bill will reduce expenditures for the Public Defender's Office by an estimated $199,000 annually. Over a ten-year period, the average cost to defend a death penalty case was $83,000 per year. Approximately 2.4 cases were represented each year. Thus, the average annual savings are estimated to be $199,000.

Judicial Branch, Alternate Defense Counsel (ADC). The bill will reduce expenditures for the Alternate Defense Counsel by an estimated $220,190 annually. The ADC represents indigent defendants when the Public Defender's Office has a conflict of interest. The ADC contracts with attorneys and investigators to defend the cases it is assigned. In FY [fiscal year] 2007-08, the ADC received a $160,000 rate increase for defending death penalty cases. In addition, the ADC would save $51,190 each year if death penalty cases were shifted to 1st degree murder cases.

The CLC also concluded that HB 1094 "creates additional expenditures for the CBI [Colorado Bureau of Investigation] to fund the Cold Case Unit, but it reduces expenditures for other agencies because of the repeal of the death penalty. The net result is a reduction in General Fund expenditures of $99,315 in FY 2007-08." The CLC also notes that because "[l]ocal governments are responsible for funding most of the costs associated with district attorney offices," they also "may realize some savings by eliminating death penalty cases." The extent of these savings, however, was not included in the analysis.

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