At a meeting of Washington state county administrators last year, Jim Jones said one budget-busting scenario provoked the biggest wave of anxiety among the budget officers: a death penalty murder prosecution.
Jones, the Clallam County administrator and then-president of the Washington County Administrative Association, told me that five counties said the same thing: “If we had a death penalty case, and had to pay $1 million (in legal costs), we’d go bankrupt.”
In an editorial calling for the repeal of the death penalty, The Seattle Times editorial board cited the enormous cost of capital punishment. Counties, with the duty of paying for courts, front much of the cost. The most comprehensive study comparing the cost of death and non-death sentence murder cases estimated the difference at $1 million – including the costs of lifetime incarceration. Counties have to pay for multiple top-end, death-penalty-qualified lawyers, experts, investigations and trials that stretch weeks, if not months.
Washington has a special state “extraordinary criminal justice costs” fund to help counties to defray aggravated murder cases. But the yearly allocation is discretionary, and the amount received is typically pennies on the dollar. That poses a complex question for lawmakers: If the Legislature insists on a capital punishment, shouldn’t it pay the cost?
It doesn’t, as the chart at right shows. Reimbursements typically favor small counties. Except for the Green River killer era, King County has fared very poorly.
Criminal justice costs consume two-thirds or even 80 percent of county budgets, Brian Enslow of the Washington Association of Counties told me. Counties are strappped, and the rare, unexpected murder case can blow up budgets.
Jones would know about these extraordinary costs: Clallam County spent $1 million in 2013 on the retrial of death-row inmate Darold Stenson, who was first sent to death row in 1994. It was enough to cause a “budget emergency” for the county’s court budget, according to the Peninsula Daily News. The county during this time was so strapped it cut staff by more than 15 percent, with annual $1 million budget shortfalls.
It could have been worse: the Stenson retrial was mitigated by the county prosecutor’s decision, two months into the process, to not seek the death penalty a second time. “It is hard to guess what it might have ended up costing if our prosecutor had not removed the death penalty as a possible outcome,” Jones said.
The threat of a single death-penalty case bankrupting a county has come up again and again. In the late 1990s, Okanogan County put on hold all equipment purchases, including worn-out patrol cars, because of the costs of a death-penalty prosecution. Stevens County in 2009 tried to beg off the death penalty case of Christopher Devlin to Spokane County, citing a $1.2 million budget deficit.
“I have no doubt that the defense cost of Mr. Devlin and the costs to prosecute this case would be a serious blow to the solvency of Stevens County,” county prosecuting attorney Tim Rasmussen told the Spokesman-Review.