The Death Penalty is Prohibitively Expensive

Posted by Zac Stone on June 21st, 2011

A new study released this week puts the cost of maintaining the death penalty in California higher than it has ever been estimated in the past. Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell, the study's authors, calculated that California taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, and estimate the annual cost of pursuing executions to be $184 million more than pursuing life without parole.

The report, facilitated by previously unavailable records from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, details exactly where and why seeking the death penalty costs so much more than life, as in the extra $200,000 spent per capital case on jury selection, the upwards of $300,000 spent on attorneys representing each inmate on appeal, and the more than $100,000 extra it costs to incarcerate a death row inmate within more secure housing (though other states have had success in "mainstreaming" death row inmates with the general population).

Few reasonable people would argue that $184 million is not a lot of money to be spending annually on just over 700 people, death row inmates or otherwise; the San Jose Mercury News deems it "fiscal insanity," and we tend to agree. Look at it one way and California has spent $308 million to execute each of the 13 men that have faced execution here since 1978.

The study's authors offer three options for ending the current cycle, which threatens to bankrupt the state (further) if not dramatically altered. The authors contend that another $85 million annually would fund California's death penalty system efficiently, while reducing the number of death-eligible crimes would potentially save taxpayers $55 million each year. By abolishing the death penalty altogether, Alarcon and Mitchell suggest California would save one billion dollars every five or six years.

There are simple ways to invest money that will reap great rewards in security for our communities. Early childhood education has proven time and again to have long-lasting effects on at-risk families. One decades-long study coming out of Chicago last week shows kids who attended an established preschool program there completed high school at higher rates and had a 28 percent lower incarceration rate than those who did not attend the program. Long-term programs that continue into second or third grade have an even more pronounced effect, with 36 percent fewer ending up in prison. Afterschool programs have similar effects, keeping at-risk kids off the streets during violent juvenile crime prime time, and allowing their parents to remain productive members of the workforce.

The programs that work most effectively at reducing crime and improving general wellbeing in our communities will have to wait for increased funding, however, until our leaders come to their senses and stop throwing more money than most of us can fathom at a system that seems, at best, designed to fail. If a $300 million execution doesn't meet Californians' threshold of "fiscal insanity," we shudder to think what does.

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  1. Comment by Thomas R, Aug 15th, 2011 9:44am

    Not only is the death penalty costly but it is inhumane, Presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry from Texas is a stauch death penalty advocate and he certainly would stand out among other governors who oppose the death penalty. So I ask what is the Death Penalty Focus doing to oppose this candidates run for the presidency?


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