Op-Ed: California Has a Bloated, Unsustainable Death Penalty

With two death penalty propositions on the November ballot, Californians are reexamining capital punishment. For fiscal conservatives, it should be a simple matter of dollars and cents.

California’s death penalty has cost taxpayers over $4 billion since 1978, according to a 2011 study. Death penalty experts Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Professor Paula M. Mitchell estimate that “capital trials cost on average an additional $1 million more than non-capital cases,” and “often cost 10-20 times more than murder trials that don’t involve the death penalty.”

Let those numbers sink in. What have California’s taxpayers gotten for their $4 billion investment? Thirteen executions and three wrongful capital convictions. Meanwhile, the capital punishment system doesn’t adequately protect society and is a harmful and traumatic process for murder victims’ families.

So what exactly makes capital case trials so much more expensive? To begin with, capital cases have a minimum of two attorneys working on each side (for both the defense and the prosecution) rather than one per side typically found in most non-capital cases. Capital cases generally have multiple investigators and experts and an extended jury selection process. Furthermore, death penalty trials are much longer, and capital proceedings have an additional sentencing trial, which is unique to death cases. The initial trials are where the largest portion of the added cost is usually found, not in the appeals, as is often believed.

Katherine Dwyer

Katherine Dwyer

Additionally, the appeals process is very complex and expensive. Outside of the courtroom, the cost of housing death row inmates heaps a heavy burden on the shoulders of the California taxpayer as well. Housing them costs an additional $90,000 annually per inmate. After crunching the numbers, it is starkly apparent that California’s death penalty system is yet another example of a bloated and unsustainable government system.

With California’s November elections quickly approaching, there are two ballot initiatives that deserve further investigation before any votes are cast—Proposition 62 and Proposition 66. Prop. 62 would repeal the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the option of parole (LWOP). Additionally, those serving LWOP would be required to work and pay restitution to the families of their victims. Prop. 66, on the other hand, would do quite the opposite. Prop. 66 would keep the death penalty in place and attempt to shorten the appeals process.

The effects of instituting Prop. 62 would be largely beneficial—millions of dollars would be saved annually and California would no longer risk executing an innocent person. Meanwhile, former death row inmates would still be safely kept off of the streets under their new LWOP sentencing. Conversely, Prop. 66 would not only result in more of the same in terms of a huge financial burden, but the initiative could also have dangerous repercussions for those sentenced to death. By speeding up the appeals process Prop. 66 would heighten the potential of executing innocent people. Although costly, the lengthy appeals process has been put in place in order to ensure that those sentenced to die for their crimes are in fact guilty.

It has taken up to 17 years to release a wrongly convicted person from California’s death row. Since 1989, 68 individuals in California have been wrongfully convicted of murder and later exonerated. State-sanctioned killing is a matter that should not be taken lightly. When a life is on the line, there is no acceptable margin of error.

The choice between these two propositions is clear—one will save California taxpayers millions of dollars each year, while the other will cost California taxpayers millions. To put this into real terms, the State’s independent Legislative Analyst determined Prop .62 will save $150 million annually. That’s $150 million a year that could be put to better use. That money could be returned to the taxpayers or it could be redirected into funding for education, public safety or crime prevention—all of which would positively impact far more lives than California’s current spending on the death penalty.

Katherine Dwyer is a Charles Koch Institute Communications Fellow with Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a Project of EJUSA. She was born and raised in California and recently graduated from San Jose State University with a degree in economics. The opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.


  1. “The choice between these two propositions is clear—one will save California taxpayers millions of dollars each year, while the other will cost California taxpayers millions… When a life is on the line, there is no acceptable margin of error.” Strong argument and well posited. Kudos for digesting and present the facts, @katherinedwyer

  2. “Strong argument and well posited. Kudos for digesting and present the facts”

    Katherine, you forgot to delete your auto-signature (“@katherined…”). Here’s some good advice, Katherine: next time, use a fake name so we won’t know who is singing your praises.

    And regarding your conclusion:

    That’s $150 million a year that could be put to better use. That money could be returned to the taxpayers…

    Please give us just a couple examples of hundreds of millions of dollars being returned to the taxpayers.

    Take your time…

    Katherine, the voting public has repeatedly passed death penalty propositions. We overturned the Rose Bird court’s gutting of the law. But YOU don’t like the way the citizens voted; you actually believe you know best!

    You don’t. You’re an enabler of more crime.

    But you might be able to convince at least this voter to see it your way. Just make the same argument about the cost — but this time, argue that Gov. Moonbeam’s $100+ billion “high speed” rail fiasco is a bad idea, and that the money should remain in taxpayers’ pockets.

    See, if it’s a money argument, you have much jucier targets.

    Here’s my argument for the death penalty: executed murderers will never commit another crime. Trump that argument — if you can.

  3. Smokey – The @katherinedwyer is not a signature but a ping or direction comment.

    I will say though, any writer that needs a large photo of themselves embedded in the article is making the article about them, not the subject matter.

    • Ted,

      Thanks, I learned something there.

      I could learn even more, if you would be so kind as to explain the “KEVIN DANIEL DWYER” part.

  4. > For fiscal conservatives, it should be a simple matter of dollars and cents.

    Being “fiscally conservative” means spending the right amount of money on the right things.

    Execution of bad guys, in a civilized society based on the rule of law, is unquestionably the role of the state. “FIscal conservatives” have no problem funding the government to carry out its legitimate functions.

  5. Let’s get it straight, the cost of an execution in the State of California starts at about $.05 and works it way up through the legal system to millions of dollars sucked up by liberal lawyers, judges, and politicians that are in no way constrained by fiscal conservancy. The more the death penalty cost the better, you can’t make any more money from a dead client.

    The rights of innocent convicts has nothing to do with with the high cost of endless trials or we would have long ago ended late term abortion in California. I rather surprised the the courts haven’t taken up litigating every abortion but for the fact that they only have 9 months to appeal one of those decisions before the victim becomes humane enough to warrant protection under the law.

    The death penalty is no deterrent to mad men and hardened criminals that go around killing people, well of course not especially when it is no more than a joke here in California. I suppose in your eyes murdering a couple of thousand people in California is just fine if it save just one maybe innocent convict.

    Speaking of jokes Miss smug smile, you are no conservative social or fiscal if you were reeducated at San Jose state. It’s likely you never will, till someone you know gets beaten to death by some jerk the law has turned loose a dozen or so times like one of my neighbors was a month ago here on the east side of San Jose.

  6. “Since 1989, 68 individuals in California have been wrongfully convicted of murder and later exonerated.”

    Since there’s no shortage of energetic law students attached to California’s various innocence projects it would seem logical – assuming these activists to be motivated by truth and justice, that the evidence (case files, appellate rulings, etc.) supporting the above statistic (or even the three referenced capital cases) would be available in convenient form online for purview by this state’s voters. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, which is both suspicious and inexcusable given the gravity of the issue.

    Why, I wonder, are activists who operate under the bold and righteous banner of “innocence” so careful to avoid that very word when describing the convicts they urge voters to rescue? Could it be that many, if not all, the convicts they champion are underserving of the word? If that’s not the case, why the aversion to the more emotionally-powerful and precise word? Were I to learn that over the course of twenty-seven years as many as sixty-eight INNOCENT Californians have been convicted of murder I would wonder why political hell hadn’t already been raised. And though such an outrage is exactly what’s implied by this state’s collegiate coalition of misplaced bleeding-hearts, their devious wordplay suggest it to be a bald-faced lie.

    In describing or critiquing something as complex and contentious as a criminal trial and penalty phase the employment of the word “wrongful” is about as concise as referring to the Grand Canyon as a “ditch.” The word can cover anything from the competence of a defense attorney to accusations aimed at a juror to recanted witness testimony of the most dubious nature – but it can never be assumed to be proof the individual did not commit the crime for which he was convicted.

    Likewise is case with the word “exonerated,” which is broad enough to encompass convicts rescued by good lawyering, political expedience, or an activist appellate judge. Again, the concept of innocence, as in factually innocent, is nowhere to be found.

    Could it be the innocence folks aren’t so innocent?

  7. In a sane State with a government that works responsibly in the interest of the people, the death penalty would absolutely be a fiscally sound punishment for dealing with the cruelest and most unusual of our criminals. After all, a speedy trial and timely carrying out of the sentence would be far cheaper than a lifetime of incarceration.
    But California doesn’t have a government that is interested in the people. We have a government that is interested in the government. We’ve got Jerry Brown and Kamala Harris. We’ve got a Democrat controlled State Assembly and a Democrat controlled State Senate. We’ve got Mike Honda. We’ve got Zoe Lofgren. They don’t give a s**t about me or Ms. Dwyer or Kermit Alexander. I’m guessing that Ms. Dwyer is factoring this in and is acknowledging that our state government has us over a barrel. They have the power to obstruct justice, to spend billions of our dollars thwarting our will, to drag their feet, and to give us the finger every single day they’re in office and there’s nothing we can do about it. So, Ms.Dwyer reasons, let’s cut our losses and capitulate to these Democrat creeps and their sleazy lawyer cronies. At least we’ll save a few bucks. I hate to admit it but she’s probably right.

  8. California isn’t unique, posters. The death penalty costs a bunch more everywhere, and doesn’t solve anything.

  9. Governments should not systematically kill or commit violence against it’s citizens other than for the immediate self defense of it’s citizens.

    • If the citizens have voted for it, and paid for it, the renegade courts should not be over ruling it.
      No matter what.

      • I humbly disagree. While democracy has taken on an almost religious status in CA, it is still essentially mob rule. Being on the wrong side of the mob once or twice, I think the genius of the Constitution are the negative rights which protect individuals from the passions of the mob. While a majority of the people may want revenge, closure, or deterrence that they hope to find in the death penalty, it is still government violence perpetrated on a citizen justified not by the defense of innocents, but by mob rule. I do not grant the government or the mob the power to take a citizen’s life absent imminent risk to others. Given that, elimination of the death penalty in any way, even though the mob, to me is acceptable.

        • Mr SJC.
          I humbly agree with you California is run by the mob, that has thrown out the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
          The rights of the victims seem irrelevant to big government even if the dead vote here.
          However the court system has been given over to a mob of lawyers that not only have destroyed the law but flaunt the fact that they can tie up justice system for decades.

          The rights we are supposed to have are stepped on and suppressed and substituted with rights that were never guaranteed or belong to someone else.

          Taking someone’s life by the state is a very serious matter but it is altogether appropriate for the atrocities committed
          by some of the people on death row. Far more people get away scot free or with minimum sentencing if they are caught at all, and that sir is no deterrent.

  10. A very clear and easy way to maintain the cost of the ‘Death Penalty’ is to simply reduce Welfare in this state. By reducing the billions that it rises each year will easily help maintain the system.

    • I think we could use a border fence, some more guards, and no Federal funding going to sanctuaries cities should cut the problem too!

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