How Much Does California’s Death Penalty Cost?

Every few years Californians voters are faced with a referendum that seeks to abolish the death penalty in the state. Proponents of getting rid of the death penalty often argue that the cost of the death penalty in California is unsustainable and a waste of taxpayer dollars. While these referendums have not been successful, the number of voters who vote in favor of these anti-death penalty measures has slowly risen over the past few years. What is the cost of the death penalty in California? Does it make sense, financially speaking, to get rid of the ultimate criminal penalty?

Cost of Imposing the Death Penalty in California

California has executed 13 death row inmates over the past four decades. During that time, the state has spent nearly $5 billion to house, prosecute, and eventually execute those individuals. When that cost is broken down, the state has spent an average of more than $300 million on imposing the death penalty on each and every one of those inmates. Is imposing the death penalty worth these extraordinary costs? How are these costs incurred and allocated?

Why is the Death Penalty So Costly?

There is a lot that goes into the prosecution of a death penalty case. In fact, the costs begin to accrue the moment a defendant is charged with a capital offense. The legal process for a death penalty case is more involved and complicated than for other prosecutions.

Imposing the death penalty is the ultimate punishment, and the state of California must be entirely sure that it convicts the right person. A complicated and lengthy legal process (and a lot of money) go into making sure that innocent people are not executed. Even so, there is no guarantee that an innocent person will never be executed.

Steps involved in the process of prosecuting a death penalty case include:

  • Initial county-level investigation and criminal trial;
  • County-level sentencing hearing;
  • State-level appeals;
  • Federal-level appeals;
  • Supreme Court habeas corpus appeal.

These steps require a lot of time, money, and legal resources. Death penalty cases require a larger initial jury pool, more attorneys, and more investigators than other cases. The appeals process can be incredibly drawn out. Some estimates show that the first automatic appeal California death row inmates are granted can take more than 10 years to review and complete. Once all appeals have been exhausted, more than three decades can have passed.

Housing Death Row Inmates During the Trial and Appeals Process

These death row inmates are detained in California prisons for the duration of this lengthy process, which only adds to the extraordinary cost of executions. According to one study, the average cost of keeping a death row inmate in prison during this lengthy process was nearly $47,000 per year.  California can incur additional costs of up to $90,000 to incarcerate each death row inmate before their scheduled execution.

California also decided to build a special death row facility to renovate its current San Quentin death row facility. The original estimate projected that California would spend $220 million on the project. However, new predictions estimate that the death row facility will cost nearly $400 million to build, and will feature fewer cells than previously thought. California taxpayers can expect to pay nearly $1 billion to operate this new facility over the next two decades.

The CCFAJ report also notes that on June 10th, the California State Auditor revealed that the new death row facility will cost at least $395 million to build, and more than $1 billion to operate over the next 20 years.

Cost of Life Imprisonment vs. Cost of the Death Penalty

Would California taxpayers be better off if life imprisonment was instituted as the maximum criminal penalty in the state? The bottom line is that it costs a lot less to house a non-death row inmate in a California state prison. Even if inmates are detained indefinitely, the costs associated with housing those inmates do not begin to reach the extraordinary costs of housing and prosecuting capital offenders.

California could save nearly $90,000 each year – per current death row inmate – if those sentences were converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole. There are currently 747 inmates on death row in California. California taxpayers could save approximately $67 million each year on housing costs alone if these prisoners were sentenced to life in prison. The savings associated with prosecuting and dealing with multiple appeals could ultimately save California taxpayers a total of nearly $150 million each year. That money could stay in the pockets of California taxpayers or be allocated to important social programs, including those that deter criminal behavior.

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