Thursday, August 02, 2012

Death Penalty Costs: California

Responses to

1) An Absurd California Death Penalty Cost Review: A Rebuttal to "Cut This: The Death Penalty"(1)


2) The Paula Mitchell/Judge Arthur L. Alarcón study: Death Penalty vs Life Costs in California

By Dudley Sharp

REVISED 2/27/13

NOTE: Clark is a Calif. ACLU activist and The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice's (CCFAJ) is a Calif. government commission.

Clark's/CCFAJ's cost review is wildly inaccurate and misleading. I doubt that there is any more veracity to the death row costs than there is with their lifer cost evaluations.

Meaning -  zero.

None of Clark/CCFAJ's numbers can be relied upon.

Clark/CCFAJ says: "In total, California's death penalty system costs taxpayers $137 million per year. Contrast that with just $11 million per year if we replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment." (1, b)

For those 724 inmates, that is:

death penalty costs: $137 million per year or about $189,000//inmate/yr.  (1,b)

life imprisonment costs: $11 million/year or $15,000/inmate/yr. (1,b)

It is complete, utter nonsense.

Some reality:

The last full California audit (Sept 2009) found the average costs, 2007-2008, per adult inmate was $49,000/inmate/yr. (2) In 1997, it was $25,000/inmate/yr. (3).

NOTE: In 10 years (1997-2008) the cost/inmate rose nearly 100%. If that escalation of costs continued, the average cost would be an average of $65,000/inmate/yr by year end 2012, for the average adult inmate, not increased security cells and not including additional medical/geriatric care.

This $49,000/inmate/yr is the average for all inmates, not the level IV security of death row inmate like criminals that will cost more, if not much more.

For higher security inmates, which would include those transferred from death row,  the costs range from $71,000 - $172,000/inmate/yr. (4)

Clark/CCFAJ is stating that these enhanced security prisoners will cost $34,000/inmate/yr LESS than the average cost for all Ca inmates.

Clark/CCFAJ's lack of credibility is of an astounding level.

Clark/CCFAJ's analysis is laughable.

Former (Calif.) State Finance Director Says Prop 34’s Cost Savings Claims “Flawed & Incorrect”:

"It is even possible that (death penalty repeal Proposition) 34 will increase costs, in addition to endangering the public. It is not worth the gamble." (5)

 Clark/CCFAJ get even worse.

Without the death penalty, Clark/CCFAJ's select group of former death row murderers would likely be in level IV security and, as lifers, would die as geriatric prisoners or from earlier illness, likely costing on average $80,000-$100,000/inmate/yr., or more, with a rare few costing a $1 million or more per year with illness and/or geriatric stages.

Geriatric problems often begins at age 50 for inmates.

NOTE: The California Medical Facility for corrections averages $83,000/inmate/yr. (6). There, likely, would be additonal costs when dealing with Level IV security prisoners.

But, for Clark/CCFAJ, former death row inmates, now lifers, cost $15,000/inmate/yr.

But, it gets even worse for Clark/CCFAJ.

Clark/CCFAJ will admit, if prodded (7) that "the figure of $137 million estimates the entire cost of the death penalty system, not simply housing, but also inclusive of all post-conviction costs, including legal appeals."

In other words, Clark/CCFAJ is admitting escalating the death penalty costs over the alleged cost comparisons of incarceration between lifers and death row. Not at all surprising Clark/CCFAJ excludes such from the lifer costs.

The Clark/CCFAJ's cost comparisons/evaluations are a very bad joke. Instead of making an honest apples to apples cost comparison, Clark/CCFAJ brings us a bad apples to newest Rolls Royce cost comparison, as if it were apples to apples.

Because so many of these cost comparisons are so pathetically unreliable, California considered that an objective assessment by RAND should be considered (8). The basis for a proper evaluation was presented, but Ca rejected doing the study, because . . . it was too expensive!

CONCLUSION - Save even more money?

There is no need for California to have a death row. Current death row prisoners can be placed in Level IV security cells, or lower/higher levels, depending upon evaluations, just as Missouri and Kansas do.

California can make their death sentenced inmates cheaper than their lifers, if they properly manage their citizens money, as Virginia does. California must only have the will to be responsible stewards of their citizens resources - something that seems to elude California lawmakers, just as basic, accurate evaluations evade Clark/CCFAJ.

(Update: Virginia executes, on average, within 7.1 years and has executed 72% of those so sentenced, a protocol that would, on average, be less expensive than comparable LWOP cases).

Today, there is no reason for Ca death row to cost more than level IV security and a proper evaluation would likely show death row cheaper or no more expensive than Level IV.

There may be no cost savings in getting rid of death row, with the exception that, if Calif had a responsible death penalty protocol, there would be many more executed murderers, thus reducing incarceration costs on death row, saving money on incarcerations costs over other level IV prisoners.


The Paula Mitchell/Judge Arthur L. Alarcón study (9)

Mitchell/Alarcón have made their study highy suspect by their refusal to share their database, which we can presume is unreliable, otherwise they would be happy to share it.

BUT . . . they confirm, up front, that is unreliable.

"As the (CCFAJ) concluded in the Final Report, “[I]t is impossible to ascertain the precise costs of the administration of California’s death penalty law at this time. But the choices that California faces require some comparison of projected costs; for this purpose, rough estimates will have to do.” FINAL REPORT, supra note 4, at 144 (emphasis added)." (10)

It's absolutely certain that the CCFAJ is horrible. 


Rough estimates find that life without parole may cost more in California than the death penalty.

If the Paula Mitchell/Judge Arthur L. Alarcón study is accurate (and they tell you it's not, above --  "impossible" "projected" "rough estimates") and the death penalty has cost California $4 billion since 1977 and there have been 2700 death penalty trials, that would mean, on average, the cases cost $1.5 million/case, for pre trial, trial, appeals, incarceration and executions.

Approximately 900 have been sent to death row and about 2/3 of all death penalty trials end with a sentence less than death, therefore 2700 death penalty trials.

Credit death penalty

If we calculated the cost savings by having the death penalty, of a plea bargain to LWOP, only possible with the death penalty, such would be the cost of trial and appeals of a LWOP case, deducted as a cost credit  to the death penalty side of the ledger and such would result in a lesser net cost per death penalty case.

This would reduce the average cost of a death penalty case by approximately $100,000, which I consider a wildy low estimate.

Increasing costs - death penalty

The 2/3 of cases that do not receive the death penalty, in a death penalty trial, will still have appeals, but, most likely, not as extensive as cases receiving the death penalty. If these cases were given LWOP, then the appeals, incarceration and geriatric care costs will transferred to the LWOP side of the ledger.

Necessarily, that would increase the average cost of the remaining 900 cases that were sentenced to death, by approximately $600,000 added cost per death penalty case for additonal appeals, liekly a high estimate.

Combined, this would increase the average cost of a death penalty case by $500,000.

Including those two cost consideration, the average death penalty case might be around $2 million

(adding  $600,000 in additonal appellate costs and subtracting $100,000 for the LWOP plea, adding, on average, $500,000/case for the 900 cases that received the death penalty.)

LWOP costs:

It seems that the incarceration costs will be considerably higher than pro Prop 34 folks have told us, with costs spiraling, hugely, with geriatric care.

If Califonia ends the death penalty, all death row prisoners who would become LWOP inmates, and based upon my review, above, it will cost around $75,000/yr/inmate, on average, or about $3,000,000 total/inmate, for 40 years, a figure which does not include pre trial, trial, appeals, geriatric care or inflation.

Including those additonal four cost considerations, the average LWOP case would be approximately $3.75 million........

As Prop 34 is stating that LWOP will replace the death penalty, there is no credit for plea bargains, because the Prop 34 folks are anticipating that those previously subject to the death penalty will receive LWOP.

Obviously, anything short of LWOP will negate many of claims from the pro Prop 34 folks.

It is hard to see where any cost savings may be if Ca ends the death penalty. As the former Califonia Finace Director found, it may even increase cost - possibly by a considerable margin.

And of course, we do have a foundation of  “It is impossible to ascertain the precise costs of the administration of California’s death penalty law at this time. But the choices that California faces require some comparison of projected costs; for this purpose, rough estimates will have to do.”

To be more precise, both the CCFAJ and  The Paula Mitchell/Judge Arthur L. Alarcón studies are full of it.




(1)   (a)  An article by James Clark, field organizer, ACLU of Southern California.


(2) California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: It Fails to Track and Use Data That Would Allow It to More Effectively Monitor and Manage Its Operations, September 2009 Report 2009-107.1, California State Auditor, pg 77, fiscal year 2007-2008,

(3) Ibid,

(4) Pelican Bay, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

(5) Fiscal expert debunks cost savings argument of Prop 34

(6) California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: It Fails to Track and Use Data That Would Allow It to More Effectively Monitor and Manage Its Operations, September 2009 Report 2009-107.1, California State Auditor, page 80, fiscal year 2007-2008,

(7) Cut This: The Death Penalty, June 28, 2010

(8) "Investigating the Costs of the Death Penalty in California: Insights for Future Data Collection in California, RAND Corp., 2/2008

(9) Executing the Will of the Voters?: A Roadmap to Mend or End the California Legislature’s Multi-Billion Dollar Death Penalty Debacle, 44 LOY. L.A. L. REV. S41 (2011),

(10) Ibid, footnote 38, page S62

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