Dotson Case Highlights Exorbitant Death Penalty Costs

Whether they like it or not, Tennessee residents will pay a lot of tax dollars to have Jessie Dotson executed. An article in Sunday’s Commercial Appeal stated that the state has already spent nearly $450,000 trying and convicting Dotson, who was sentenced to six death sentences. 

While these costs may seem outrageous to the public, they are certainly not extraordinary considering capital cases are more expensive than non-capital cases at every level. According to the Commercial Appeal, the state spent over $250,000 on the defense alone. Marty McAffee, who served as co-counsel for Jessie Dotson, is quoted as saying, “Because it’s so final, they’ve got to spend resources. We could save a lot of money by not having the death penalty in Tennessee. Life in prison is enough to break even the worst of the worst. That would be a better use of Tennessee’s resources.”

McAffee’s words become even more poignant when the cost of incarceration data provided by the 2004 Comptroller’s report fails to give the whole story. Given the Department of Corrections recent estimate that they spend $34,065.45 to house a death row inmate for a year, $23,699.45 to house an inmate serving life without parole, and the average 22 years spent on death row, executions only “save” taxpayers $435,532.60 incarceration costs rather than the $773,736 cited in the Comptroller’s report.  And again, the “savings” referred to in the report only take into account incarceration costs.

When compared with the exorbitant costs spent on a capital trial as well as the costs of the numerous appeals available within our current judicial system, the state ultimately spends far more on the death penalty as a whole than life without parole.  And given that a  2001 report in the Tennessean stated that of the 151 death sentences that had completed review in both state and federal court, 76 had been reversed, citizens often pay for expensive capital trials (the most costly part of the process) with almost half of the defendants ending up with life sentences anyway. 

In 2007, the Tennessee Comptroller’s office testified before the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty that, though the office did a cost study in 2004, the fact is that because the data is not centralized, there is no way to really get at the true costs of the death penalty to Tennesseans. For all the talk among politicians about government spending and accountability, I have heard no one demanding that Tennesseans get a true accounting of  how much we are spending on the death penalty system. 

We can hold violent individuals like Mr. Dotson accountable for their crimes and keep society safe without spending precious resources on the death penalty and without putting the victims families through 20 years of waiting for the sentence to be carried out.  There is another way.    

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