Killing California's Costly Death Penalty

Is the death penalty too expensive and ineffective to keep? 

This November, California voters will have the chance to decide on that question by voting for or against a ballot initiative called SAFE (Savings Accountability Full Enforcement), which would replace the death penalty with life without possibility of parole as the state's maximum punishment.

Putting the moral issues of the death penatly aside, SAFE proponents argue that California's death penalty is costly to taxpayers and broken beyond repair. 

“Over the last 32 years its cost California tax payers about 4 billion dollars to have the death penalty, and over that period only 13 executions have been carried out,” says LMU Law Professor Paula Mitchell.

Mitchell's study, "Rethinking the Death Penalty in California," shows that once the death penalty comes into play for a case, the legal costs skyrocket to an extra $134 million dollars per year, well above the cost to implement life without possibility of parole. Death penalty cases require more attorneys, more experts, and an automatic review by the California Supreme Court, making it a seemingly endless process. 

“The average time on death row is now approaching 30 years,” says former San Quentin Death Row Warden Jeanne Woodford. “So we have more inmates on death row who have died by natural causes or by suicide.”

Opponents of SAFE, such as Legal Director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation Kent Scheidegger, say California simply needs to streamline its system to emulate the process in states like Virginia. 

“We need to speed up the review process. We are currently spending far more than we need in both time and resources reviewing claims that have absolutely nothing to do with whether the guy committed the murder or not.” Scheidegger says.

Yet advocates for SAFE say that this would be a dangerous move, not to mention extremely costly. Mitchell argues that it would cost an extra $100 million per year to reform the existing system.

“And one of the dangers of this idea that we should just hurry and speed things up is that it could result in cases where someone who isn’t guilty or didn’t have a fair trial is being executed,” Mitchell says.

About 7 minutes.

Written and Produced by Tracy Oppenheimer. Field producer is Zach Weissmueller.

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  • John||

    It is only expensive because anti-death penalty people have corrupted the courts to make it so. It doesn't have to be expensive. In fact, for most of the country's history it hasn't been.

    There are good arguments against the death penalty, the sanctity of life, the possibility of getting the wrong man, the bad precedent of allowing the state to kill its own citizens, etc.

    But sorry "we anti death penalty advocates have mad it too expensive to be practical" is not a good argument. It is a tautology.

  • John Thacker||

    I look at it from another angle. Presumably those extra attorneys, experts, and reviews are designed to assure that we'll get better justice.

    If you're innocent, it may be better to be sentenced to death than to life in prison. You'll have more chances and more resources to prove your innocence, that's for sure. (There's a question of whether or not it will work.)

    The argument about saving money is essentially saying that it's okay to be less sure about justice if we're only locking people up for life.

  • John||

    Only if you think all of that creates more justice. It is hardly clear that the extra layers of review create a more reliable system. In fact, since the layers of review generally review legal process and not factual guilt or innocence, it creates a less reliable system. If you are an innocent person convicted by a fair trial, you are screwed. In contrast, if you are a guilty person who didn't get the benefit of full process, you will probably walk.

  • tarran||


    Especially since the voters assume that someone who made it through all those layers of review with their sentence intact thus must be guilty.

  • SIV||

    That's why I support lynching, Anonobot.

  • John Thacker||

    Death penalty cases require more attorneys, more experts, and an automatic review by the California Supreme Court, making it a seemingly endless process.

    So what you're saying, then, is that innocents convicted of a crime are more likely to get justice if they get the death penalty than life without parole?

    I don't think that this is a very good argument. I would hope that it wouldn't save that much money, that the resources would be redirected to determining the innocence of those who get life.

    But perhaps this is right. Perhaps all this money will be saved, because no one cares if innocent people are locked up forever, so long as they aren't killed.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Maybe it's time for Calif to have another vote on the death penalty.

    The last time was just after the state Supreme Court declared that the death penalty was cruel and unusual under the Calif constitution. The voters responded by saying, "no it isn't," but by that time Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson had been spared. And they got to have periodic parole hearings where they could swear that they'd gotten better and probably wouldn't kill anyone if they got back on the outside.

    Nowadays the opponents of the DP have gotten a bit more sophisticated than this. They are putting forward a *real* life sentence as the alternative to the death penalty - not a parole hearing for the Manson Gang every few years.

    If we have the will to keep vicious killers in a *real* prison for the rest of their life, then maybe we can ditch the death penalty.

  • SIV||

    What is the ratio of capital appeals based on "you got the wrong man" to "I did the crime BUT..."?

    I don't think the state should have a monopoly on retributive violence but there are a whole lot of people who need killin'.

  • Metazoan||

    I suppose the problem is that the entire criminal justice system neither delivers much justice to the parties wronged nor makes the country substantially safer, even excluding the major issue of victimless crimes. Countries that have greater focus on public safety, and not punishment/prison corporation enrichment tend to have lower recidivism rates. Perhaps we should examine and attempt these alternate solutions.

  • Paul.||

    Mitchell's study, "Rethinking the Death Penalty in California," shows that once the death penalty comes into play for a case, the legal costs skyrocket to an extra $134 million dollars per year, well above the cost to implement life without possibility of parole. Death penalty cases require more attorneys, more experts, and an automatic review by the California Supreme Court, making it a seemingly endless process.

    This is an interesting argument.

    as the OP suggests, putting the morality of the death penalty aside, if you agree that you're going to have a death penalty, isn't this exactly the thing that we should be doing if we have a death penalty?

    I disagree with my right honorable colleague John above, that we should streamline the DP process, make it quick, efficient, and limit appeals.

    I'm not comfortable with that, and I'm a long-time DP supporter.

    I think that if you're going to pull the trigger on someone, you better make sure due process has been followed.

    And if the death penalty is overturned either by popular vote or process of the courts, we better not be throwing people in jail for life just because it's "easier".

    If I get my ass tossed in the clink for life, I'd like some chance to appeal and have my case reopened if new evidence comes to light.

  • Paul.||

    *sigh* italics end at "this is an interesting argument"

  • R C Dean||

    You don't have a death penalty if you aren't actually putting people to death. Which CA isn't.

    What they have is an extra-super-special-bad-guy-life-without-parole wing on the prison. Which, for some reason, gets all kinds of money thrown at it which the other lifers don't get.

  • Paul.||

    California has a death penalty threat.

  • Marshall Gill||

    Tookie Williams?

  • Harvard||

    This all sounds like a ringing endorsement for more citizens like George Zimmerman and Constitutional Carry.

  • ||

    I don't think that expense is necessarily a good argument against the death penalty. It's not like housing and feeding people for life isn't costly either.

  • Plainsman||

    The real reason to vote against this bill is that the death penalty legal-industrial complex will not simply go away. They will define down the "cruelty" and "inhumame" standards to make life in prison without parole violate the "cruel and unusual" prohibitions in the constitution.

    By keeping the death penalty, you tie these people up on a rather small number of cases. By letting them attack life in prison, they will have a much bigger kettle of fish to work with.

    First, it will be life without parole is cruel, then it will be life with parole is cruel because it gives no limit and one inmate gets 30 years and a second might die early and only get 20 for the same crime. Once those barriers are broken, it will be a wholesale assault on the penal system by guilt-ridden lawyers convinced of their own moral superiority and facing crushing unemployment if they don't go this way.

  • DJK||

    Wow. This is rather conspiratorial. I had forgotten how many people exist for the sole purpose of making criminals' lives easier. You're so very right. This is not a fight about whether the state has any moral authority to execute people. It's about trying to get criminals back on the streets. Is this what passes for critical thinking amongst the law and order types?

  • BRM||

    Not really. When Texas and Mississippi tightened their tort system, their massive malpractice and tort bars didn't just close down. They went shopping for jurisdictions that would allow them to keep suing people.

    No one who has spent that much time and effort in this area will simply go hang their shingle in some strip mall and spend the rest of their careers writing wills. They will do as was said. Simply define deviancy down.

    Not conspiratorial at all. Just a developmental phenomenon. If you have a hammer, all the world looks like a nail. If you are a lawyer that has made a career out of generating endless appeals over one sentence, you will be likely to keep doing that if the law gets changed.

    Besides, should we really listen to the very people who are responsible for the costs when they tell us that the death penalty is too expensive? Especially when their skin in the game is going to go away once the law gets changed?

  • wareagle||

    of all the things for CA to get fiscal religion over, it is comical that this is the issue.

  • BC||

    I've long since arrived at the conclusion that the state is morally incompetent to be executing people.

    But quite frankly, people who've spent decades making capital appeals as protracted and expensive as possible ought to be estopped from arguing that the death penalty is now cost-prohibitive.

  • Federale||

    Since leftists have effectively abolished the death penalty, it cannot be effective.

    And let us not forget the cost of all the murders that will happen when the death penalty is abolished. For every execution, several lives are saved.

    Remember, murder victims loose their liberty as well as their lives.

  • DJK||

    Really? If you keep a person in prison for their entire life instead of executing them, they'll be able to kill more people? From their prison cell? Did you think prior to writing this comment?

  • RightNut||

    Did you really think before writing your comment? He's not saying that death-row inmates sneak out and murder more people. He's arguing that the deterrent effect of having a death penalty will save lives. I've heard of a few studies that either support or refute the deterrent effect of the death penalty, I'm sure you can google it if you are really interested.

    As for my opinion, the idea of The State killing its own citizens creeps me out. However, I live in a prison town, and worked at a corner convenience store half a mile from both a minimum security and maximum security prison during college. I got to know some of the prison guards fairly well, and heard frequent gossip about some of the worst offenders in the prison. My state abolished the death penalty before I was born, so I don't have a good example with which to contrast, but I have no doubt that some of the prisoners I heard about would not be deterred at all by a sentence of life without parole.

  • DJK||

    First off, that's not what he's saying at all. If he had meant to say that the death penalty deters the few crimes to which it can actually be applied, he might have said something like "the death penalty deters capital offenses". What he actually said was "for every execution, several lives are saved". That hardly seems equivalent.

    And even if he had meant what you suggest, the facts simply don't support this view. States which have abolished the death penalty have lower murder rates than states which still use it. 88% of criminologists believe that the death penalty is not a deterrent to homicide and 87% of criminologists believe that abolishing the death penalty would not lead to an increase in the murder rate (what happened to that 1%...weird). This is from a highly-cited 2009 review article.

    I know, I know...the first reason I give is correlation...the second is an appeal to authority. But absent any controlled study which would be impossible to do, these facts are fairly compelling. I would think that the state should have pretty hard proof that the death penalty deters murder in a meaningful way before it goes about killing its citizens. And that proof simply doesn't exist.

  • tee shirt pas cher||

    Putting the moral issues of the death penatly aside, SAFE proponents argue that California's death penalty is costly to taxpayers and broken beyond repair.

  • jason||

    Most of the states have cancled the death penality, california is also on the same way,

  • greeve||

    I'm surprised more supporters of the death penalty don't aggressively advocate the decriminalization of victimless crimes (drug possession, gambling, prostitution, etc). Doing so might free up a lot of courtroom time AND money, allowing for a faster appeals process while also making it more difficult for opponents to say that we can't afford to keep a death penalty.

  • greeve||

    A question for people who advocate life without parole instead of the death penalty: How do we deter these lifers from attempting to harm/kill guards and/or fellow inmates without violating their Constitutional rights protecting them from cruel and unusual punishment?

  • DJK||

    23 hour a day solitary confinement. Next?

  • DJK||

    Also, let's not pretend this is an issue in the first place. The vast majority of prisoners convicted of murder in the vast majority of the states are not on death row. Many are in prison for life (with or without the possibility of parole).

    Wouldn't this problem you're so concerned about also apply to all of them? Moreover, why shouldn't we be concerned about the safety of guards and inmates from felons on death row? I'm sure whatever safeguards exist on death row, they could exist in the no parole ward. It's a minor problem with an easy solution.

  • DJK||

    Every experience I've had with prison (I've volunteered at them, corresponded with inmates, read extensively, etc) suggests that the prisoners have much more to fear from the guards than the guards do from the prison.

  • DJK||


  • greeve||

    Unfortunately, this comes as no shock to me.

    Cellphone-generated video footage has begun to put a spotlight on police brutality in recent years, but convicts are a more vulnerable population then the average citizen, with less recourses available if they're abused by those in authority (no cellphones to record incidents, less credibility in the eyes of investigators if they DO file a complaint, and more vulnerable to retaliation for filing complaints).

  • agentalbert||

    Maybe the answer is robot guards. They'd have nothing to fear from the inmates and robots don't have tempers.

  • greeve||

    (DJK: While it's difficult to read "tone" in written statements, you seem to be under the impression that my question was meant only to be rhetorical/argumentative; this is not the case)

    I don't know how much of a problem it is, but I don't think that it has an "easy" solution.

    There is a STRONG argument, for example, that 23-hour solitary (common in SuperMax facilities, if I understand the situation correctly) violates the cruel and unusual prohibition in Constitution.

    In addition, the precautions taken with death row inmates would probably be prohibitively expensive to scale up to all convicts serving a life sentence.

    However, I also haven't checked stats about violent crimes committed by convicts already serving a life sentence, so I'm perfectly happy to accept your "this has not been a major problem so far" response. I was asking the question because I didn't know the answer, not because I considered it a foolproof argument against abolishing the death penalty.

  • ||

    view process. We are currently spending far more than we need in both time and resources reviewing claims that have absolutely nothing to do with whether the guy committed the mu

  • Dan Givens||

    Part of our problem is douchebag judges like this:

    "Mere factual innocence is no reason not to carry out a death sentence properly reached."
    --U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
    Herrera v. Collins 506 US 390 1993


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