The High Cost of the Death Penalty

The death penalty is much more expensive than life without parole because the Constitution requires a long and complex judicial process for capital cases. This process is needed in order to ensure that innocent men and woman are not executed for crimes they did not commit, and even with these protections the risk of executing an innocent person can not be completely eliminated.

If the death penalty was replaced with a sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole*, which costs millions less and also ensures that the public is protected while eliminating the risk of an irreversible mistake, the money saved could be spent on programs that actually improve the communities in which we live. The millions of dollars in savings could be spent on: education, roads, police officers and public safety programs, after-school programs, drug and alcohol treatment, child abuse prevention programs, mental health services, and services for crime victims and their families.

*More than 3500 men and women have received this sentence in California since 1978 and NOT ONE has been released, except those few individuals who were able to prove their innocence.

California could save $1 billion over five years by replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment. 

California taxpayers pay $90,000 more per death row prisoner each year than on prisoners in regular confinement.

California Cost Studies:

Executing the Will of the Voters: A Roadmap to Mend or End the California Legislature's Multi-Billion-Dollar Death Penalty Debacle (2011)

California has spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment since it was reinstated in 1978 (about $308 million for each of the 13 executions carried out)

California spends an additional $184 million on the death penalty per year because of the additional costs of capital trials, enhanced security on death row, and legal representation.

The study’s authors predict that the cost of the death penalty will reach $9 billion by 2030.
Read the report.

Report of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (2008)

"The additional cost of confining an inmate to death row, as compared to the maximum security prisons where those sentenced to life without possibility of parole ordinarily serve their sentences, is $90,000 per year per inmate. With California's current death row population of 670, that accounts for $63.3 million annually."

Using conservative rough projections, the Commission estimates the annual costs of the present (death penalty) system to be $137 million per year.

The cost of the present system with reforms recommended by the Commission to ensure a fair process would be $232.7 million per year.

The cost of a system in which the number of death-eligible crimes was significantly narrowed would be $130 million per year.

The cost of a system which imposes a maximum penalty of lifetime incarceration instead of the death penalty would be $11.5 million per year.
Read the report.

ACLU of Northern California's Report "The Hidden Death Tax" (2008)
In "The Hidden Death Tax" the ACLU-NC reveals for the first time some of the hidden costs of California's death penalty, based on records of actual trial expenses and state budgets.

The report reveals that:

  • California taxpayers pay at least $117 million each year post-trial seeking execution of the people currently on death row;

  • Executing all of the people currently on death row, or waiting for them to die there of other causes, will cost California an estimated $4 billion more than if they had been sentenced to die in prison of disease, injury, or old age;

  • California death penalty trials have cost as much as $10.9 million.

The report concludes that not enough is being done to track death penalty expenses. The report recommends tracking more of these costs to provide greater transparency and accountability for a system that costs California hundreds of millions. Finally, this report demonstrate that California's death penalty is arbitrary, unnecessary and a waste of critical resources.
Read the report.

Los Angeles Times Study Finds California Spends $250 Million per Execution (2005)

Key Points:

  • The California death penalty system costs taxpayers more than $114 million a year beyond the cost of simply keeping the convicts locked up for life. (This figure does not take into account additional court costs for post-conviction hearings in state and federal courts, estimated to exceed several million dollars.)

  • With 11 executions spread over 27 years, on a per execution basis, California and federal taxpayers have paid more than $250 million for each execution.

  • It costs approximately $90,000 more a year to house an inmate on death row, than in the general prison population or $57.5 million annually.

  • The Attorney General devotes about 15% of his budget, or $11 million annually to death penalty cases.

  • The California Supreme Court spends $11.8 million on appointed counsel for death row inmates.

  • The Office of the State Public Defender and the Habeas Corpus Resource Center spend a total of $22.3 million on defense for indigent defendants facing death.

  • The federal court system spends approximately $12 million on defending death row inmates in federal court.

  • No figures were given for the amount spent by the offices of County District Attorneys on the prosecution of capital cases, however these expenses are presumed to be in the tens of millions of dollars each year.

Source: Tempest, Rone, "Death Row Often Means a Long Life", Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2005. Read the article.

Study Finds Death Penalty More Expensive Than Sentence of Life Without Parole. (1993)

Capital Trials Are Different

Capital punishment in California, as in every other state, is more expensive than a life imprisonment sentence without the opportunity of parole. These costs are not the result of frivolous appeals but rather the result of Constitutionally mandated safeguards that can be summarized as follows:

  • Juries must be given clear guidelines on sentencing, which result in explicit provisions for what constitutes aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

  • Defendants must have a dual trial--one to establish guilt or innocence and if guilty a second trial to determine whether or not they would get the death penalty.

  • Defendants sentenced to death are granted oversight protection in an automatic appeal to the state supreme court.

Constitutional Safeguards

Since there are few defendants who will plead guilty to a capital charge, virtually every death penalty trial becomes a jury trial with all of the following elements:

  • a more extensive jury selection procedure

  • a four fold increase in the number of motions filed

  • a longer, dual trial process

  • more investigators and expert testimony

  • more lawyers specializing in death penalty litigation

  • automatic, mandatory appeals


This study concludes that the enhanced cost of trying a death penalty case is at least $1.25 million more than trying a comparable murder case resulting in a sentence of life in prison without parole. These savings are entirely at the trial level and do not take into consideration the cost to county taxpayers (as they share the burden with other California citizens) for the mandatory state supreme court appeals and potential federal appeals.


This study titled "Capital Punishment at What Price: An Analysis of the Cost Issue in a Strategy to Abolish the Death Penalty" was completed by David Erickson in 1993 in the form of a Master's Thesis for U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Public Policy. The complete study can be found in the U.C. Berkeley Graduate Library or can be obtained by contacting Death Penalty Focus.
Read the full study.

Cost Study by the Sacramento Bee (1988)

Key Points:

  • A study done by the Sacramento Bee (March 28, 1988) suggests that California would save $90 million per year if it were to abolish the death penalty.

  • $78 million of these expenses are occurred at the trial level and would not be reduced by shortening appeals.

"CLOSING DEATH ROW WOULD SAVE STATE $90 MILLION A YEAR", Sacramento Bee, Published on March 28, 1988, Page A1, 2589 words. Read the article.


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