California’s prison system is severely overcrowded and expensive, but incarceration for those sentenced to life without parole is not the state’s most costly form of punishment. With a state initiative to eliminate capital punishment on the ballot this November, an updated study by a law professor and a federal appeals court judge projects that California’s death penalty system would cost taxpayers between $5.4 and $7.7 billion more between now and 2050 than if those in death row were sentenced to life in prison without parole.
During that time, the study projects, about 740 more inmates will be added to death row and 14 executions will be carried out, while more than 500 of those prisoners will die from suicide or natural causes before the state executes them. Compared to life without parole — the state’s second-most-severe punishment — the costs of the death penalty system include higher incarceration costs due to security and other requirements, and astronomical litigation costs — both for individual appeals and for lethal injection litigation.
Ninth Circuit Senior Judge Arthur L. Alarcón and Loyola Law School Los Angeles adjunct professor Paula M. Mitchell explain in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review:
[T]here is absolutely no support for the contention, advanced by some pro-death-penalty organizations, that replacing the death penalty with LWOP [life without parole] will increase housing or medical care costs for the state. Death-row inmates grow old and need costly medical care, just as LWOP inmates do. Indeed, death row inmates receive the same medical care that LWOP inmates receive, but it is provided at a premium due to logistical problems and security concerns that are endemic to providing healthcare to aging inmates on San Quentin’s death row. The vast majority of death-row prisoners who have died in California have lived out the remainder of their natural lives in state prison, just as LWOP inmates do. This is because most death-row inmates die in prison of natural causes. They just do so in a much more costly manner than do LWOP inmates.
If the state were to pass the proposed SAFE California Act (Proposition 34), $30 million per year would be reallocated toward the 46 percent of homicide cases and 56 percent of rape cases that go unsolved, according to statistics from the California Attorney General’s office.
Since 1989, California has sentenced two men to death who were later exonerated and released from prison. In 2011 and 2012 alone, five California men who were wrongfully convicted of murder but received lesser sentences were exonerated and released from prison, according to the study.
The National Registry of Exonerations — a database of those who were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated since 1989 — reports that California had the second-highest number of wrongful convictions in the country at 97 (tied with Texas). The state with the highest number, Illinois, eliminated the death penalty in 2011.