What's the Cost of the Death Penalty?


"Killing California's Costly Death Penalty," produced by Tracy Oppenheimer. Approximately 7 minutes.

Original release date was July 11, 2012. The original writeup is below.

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.

Go to Reason.tv for downloadable versions and subscribe to ReasonTV's YouTube Channel to receive automatic updates when new stories go live.