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The Cost of Executing California's Inmates has Averaged $308 Million per Death

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One nice side effect of times of austerity: Extra scrutiny on budgets can push societies to move past counterproductive and costly public policy. Take California, where the outrageous state budget deficit prompted two legal experts to investigate the total costs and of the state's capital punishment program.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, it turns out the state is spending a boatload of cash, and it isn't even getting many bodies for its buck:

Taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment in California since it was reinstated in 1978, or about $308 million for each of the 13 executions carried out since then, according to a comprehensive analysis of the death penalty's costs.

The examination of state, federal and local expenditures for capital cases, conducted over three years by a senior federal judge and a law professor, estimated that the additional costs of capital trials, enhanced security on death row and legal representation for the condemned adds $184 million to the budget each year.

If that number seems low, that's because, well, it is. California actually has hundreds of people on death row, but lengthy appeals, faulty prosecutions and challenges to the lethal-injection system have forced decades-long delays between sentencing and executions.

All moral arguments about capital punishment aside, a state as broke as California can't ignore its outlandish costs. Or, to look at it another way, if California wants to spend hundreds of millions a year to kill prisoners, it should spend the money needed to run a system that actually carries out executions. From the Los Angeles Times:

The authors outline three options for voters to end the current reality of spiraling costs and infrequent executions: fully preserve capital punishment with about $85 million more in funding for courts and lawyers each year; reduce the number of death penalty-eligible crimes for an annual savings of $55 million; or abolish capital punishment and save taxpayers about $1 billion every five or six years.

Keep in mind that California is being forced to cut billions in funding for public universities, which is driving some of the biggest tuition hikes in the country and pushing many families looking for a good in-state discount on college to leave the state — and colleges are just one victim of the crisis.

It's also worth noting that there's no evidence the death penalty works as a deterrent, meaning capital-punishment states are spending all these billions just because soccer moms and Reagan Democrats and God knows what other voting blocs feel good about seeing murderers get the needle.

Meanwhile, since the advent of DNA evidence, dozens of cases have been uncovered where innocent defendants were executed or sentenced to death row. Even if it doesn't bother residents of capital-punishment states that their tax dollars make them an accessory to murder, budget hawks might sweat their states' vulnerability to multi-million-dollar court judgments for the wrongly convicted.

The death penalty remains popular among voters, of course, so it's far from assured that legislators will try to find savings by reducing or eliminating capital prosecutions. So far, Gov. Jerry Brown has only signaled his willingness to cut spending that would improve conditions for death-row inmates, like on the now-defunct $356 million death row that would have moved inmates out of squalid conditions, including plumbing-related "stalactites of human detritus". (Death-penalty advocates cheered that move.)

Given the way the state spends money, don't be shocked if bloodthirsty Californians go ahead and vote in a referendum to spend the extra billions needed to kill the people the law intends to kill. Still, this might be the state's best opportunity to get out of the business of killing people.

Also see: States Buying Lethal Injection Drugs From Back Room of London Driving School
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