Cut Death Penalty, Save California $126 Million a Year

death penaltyThe California Supreme Court ‘sentenced’ our state’s taxpayers to an additional debt of $180,000 more per year last week.

How? The state’s high court upheld the death penalty in two cases. Imposing the death penalty adds enormously to the cost of prosecution and permanent lifetime housing for an inmate. The death penalty is certainly a polarizing public policy issue, but I wonder how many people realize that it’s also a vortex-like drain on their own pocketbooks.

Whether you’re for or against the death penalty, you are paying for it. And Californians are paying more for it than any other state. Here are the staggering numbers, from a report by the ACLU of Northern California:

  • $90,000 a year – taxpayers’ extra cost of holding one inmate on death row, over and above the cost of keeping an inmate in the general prison population
  • $10.9 million – taxpayers’ cost of one death penalty trial, based on the records of a sample of trials
  • $117 million a year – taxpayers’ cost of seeking execution, after conviction, for inmates throughout the state

Altogether, Californians spend as much per year in pursuit of executions as the salaries of more than 2,500 experienced teachers, or 2,250 new California Highway Patrol officers.

Why are we putting our cash-strapped state and county governments, and ourselves, through this? The ACLU of Northern California’s county-by-county comparison, ‘Death by Geography,’ found that counties that sentence people to death do not experience lower homicide rates or higher rates of solving homicides.

Instead of California cutting $50 million from the fund for victims of violent crime, as the legislature and governor did last year, the ACLU California affiliates suggest the state cut its expensive death penalty. Instead of cutting programs emphasizing education, rehabilitation, and addiction treatment, cut the death penalty. The state would save $1 billion over five years without releasing a single prisoner, including $400 million that would be saved by eliminating a new facility planned for death row inmates.


As I testified to the Californian Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice in 2008: “California’s death penalty system is arbitrary, biased, expensive, and susceptible to fatal error. It cannot be fixed. It should not be tinkered with. It should be ended.”

Ramona Ripston

Ramona Ripston is the executive director of the ACLU in Southern California. Republished with permission.


  1. concerned in portland says

    I was born and raised in southern California, but I left because of stupid things like this. It is outragous to spend that much money before we kill someone like Richard Ramirus (the nightstacker). Violent criminals like these need to die. Rapist, child molesters and murders need to be put to death, rather then release them back into society to offend again and again.

    • says

      All this discussion of on the states part about paying so much to house, feed, clothe, medicate violent criminals. A box of 50, .40 cal semi wad cutters runs approx. $20.00. I would suggest that the Feds approach this in a thrifty manner and opt to use the most cost effective way ($.40 per bullet, per inmate) versus the numbers they provide.

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