Life sentence costs less than death row

By Nannette Miranda (KABC)
October 20, 2009


The new study shows that the death penalty is turning into a really expensive form of life without parole for the nearly 700 inmates on California’s death row.

The Death Penalty Information Center concludes California is one of many states that wastes millions of dollars on the death penalty.

In California, the bill is $137 million a year to imprison and litigate the sentence of death row inmates. Whereas if they were serving a life sentence without parole, the estimated cost to taxpayers would be $11.5 million.

University of the Pacific-McGeorge School of Law Professor Michael Vitiello has been studying prison reform for years and says the savings could be used to make streets safer.

“Studies demonstrate that the certainty of punishment is far more important than the severity. So we can have more police, more district attorneys, public defenders,” said Vitiello.

But voters in California approved the return of capital punishment, and death penalty advocate Governor Schwarzenegger says it’s not a waste of money even for his cash-strapped state.

“Justice — it’s worth the money no matter what type of budget crunch we’re in,” said Schwarzenegger. “So I think we’re going to continue with that until the people have changed their mind.”

California’s death row inmates are known to stretch out the appeals process for decades, racking up huge expenses for their lawyers, if they can find one, and their incarceration.

Defense attorney Ellen Eggers opposes the death penalty and represents inmates through the appeal process.

“There’s parts of it you simply can’t shorten,” said Eggers. “Under the law, every capital defendant has the right to an automatic appeal to the California Supreme Court.”

In times of deep cuts to education and social services, crime-victims groups say they want to see death sentences carried out no matter the costs.

“Ultimately, it was the sentence they were given, and if that victim is supportive of that, then the victim has the right to see that through,” said Christine Ward, Crime Victims Action Alliance.

Texas was not included in the study, because numbers were not available to researchers. It would have been interesting to see the costs from a state that performs the death penalty faster than California.

California has not executed anyone in four years because of a moratorium in place while the death chamber at San Quentin is upgraded to the satisfaction of a federal judge.

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