Cut the Death Penalty to Trim California’s Budget


Cut This: The Death Penalty

by James Clark

California’s governor has proposed closing the state’s $20 billion budget gap with a drastic cuts-only approach, slashing funding for vital human services without working to increase revenue. Yet one state program seems to be immune from these cuts: the death penalty.

We think the time has come to CUT THIS.


California spends vast amounts of money prosecuting death penalty cases and supporting death row. To avoid executing an innocent person, the death penalty process is long, complicated, and expensive. Each prosecution seeking death costs approximately $1.1 million more than a trial seeking permanent imprisonment, and with more than 700 inmates, California’s death row is by far the largest and most costly in the nation. 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. Top that off with $400 million saved if we don’t build a new death row, needed because the existing one is so old and overcrowded.

Today, if Governor Schwarzenegger were to convert the sentences of all those on death row to permanent imprisonment, the state would save $1 billion over the next five years without releasing a single prisoner.

But the death penalty is not on the chopping block. Rather than cutting the death penalty, the Governor has focused on cutting the “rehabilitation” side of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Programs emphasizing education, rehabilitation, and addiction treatment have all seen cuts to their budgets, while death penalty prosecutions continue statewide.

Meanwhile, efforts to get California’s budget under control are threatening the safety of the state’s most vulnerable residents: seniors and people with disabilities who rely on in-home supportive care, working moms and their children surviving round after round of cuts to child care and CalWORKs, and children who depend on the Healthy Families program for insurance coverage. They all have faced dangerous erosions in access to health care and social services. Yet funding for death penalty prosecutions continues unabated.

Even victims of violent crime have felt the sting of the state budget cuts. Last year, the Legislature and the Governor took $50 million from the Victims’ Compensation Fund, cutting money used to pay for funeral services, counseling, and medical care for crime victims and their families. Now the fund is running out of money because the state has prioritized execution above victims’ services.

In addition, local law enforcement is also under threat. Los Angeles is currently unable to afford overtime pay for homicide investigations and Oakland is about to lay off 80 police officers. Already, more than half of the murders from the last ten years remain unsolved in Los Angeles County and Alameda County, where Oakland is located. Statewide, 45% of murders were not solved from 1999 to 2008. That means up to 10,000 killers walk the streets because we are not spending the time and money needed to catch them.

California must re-evaluate its budget priorities. Cuts to social services and effective public safety programs that protect communities and reduce crime threaten California families. Permanent imprisonment is a safe and cost effective alternative to the death penalty, providing swift and certain justice, real public safety, and massive budget savings that can be passed on to taxpayers. Every day more and more Californians are calling on Governor Schwarzenegger to CUT THIS. End the death penalty and save $1 billion in five years.

James Clark is the death penalty field organizer for the ACLU of Southern California. Learn more about how we can achieve Budget Justice in California.


About The Author

Related posts

4 thoughts on “Cut the Death Penalty to Trim California’s Budget”

  1. E Roberts Musser

    I’m opposed to the death penalty – because of the error rate in death penalty cases (and other crimes), which is far too high. However, could you retroactively commute death sentences to life in prison without parole, for prisoners now on death row from a legal perspective? I’m all for it going forward – if it will indeed save money – and bc it will end the unfortunate circumstance of the execution innocent people, but would it be legal ex post facto?

  2. David M. Greenwald

    “However, could you retroactively commute death sentences to life in prison without parole, for prisoners now on death row from a legal perspective?”

    I’ve been told that you can. You can always commute sentences to lower, in fact, when the original death penalty was struck down they commuted them all to life but I think with parole, that’s why someone like Charlie Manson comes up for parole and gets rejected on a regular basis.

  3. wesley506

    The ACLU has not been able to convince the majority of the people of California that the death penalty is wrong, so they have taken the indirect route of making it fiscally prohibitive by overwhelming the courts with appeals for 20+ years for every case.

    If an someone is never going to get out of prison, death row is the most pleasant place to be. If an inmate is convicted of child molestation/rape/torture it is the only safe place to be. Some of the special emmeneties for death row guests are:
    1. inmates get single cells, they don’t have to share a two bunk cell
    2. their cells are bigger than the standard maximum-security cells for lifers
    3. inmates get unlimited telephone access
    4. they are allowed “contact visits” by themselves, although the visit is in a see-through plexiglass booth (lifers have to visit in a communal hall, no one on one contact)
    5. they get breakfast and dinner served to them in their cells
    6. Lunch is served in the exercise yard, so they get to go outside daily
    7. Death Row inmates are allowed to visit with other Death Row inmates during the lunch hour
    8. Death Row inmates get to have TVs, CD Players, and the like in their cells
    9. While other inmates are limited to six cubit feet of personal property, this doesn’t apply to California Death Row inmates.

    With the crimes that many of the death row inmates have been convicted of, if the death penalty was eliminated today, they would be screaming for special proctective housing, and the state would provide it.

  4. Superfluous Man

    “However, could you retroactively commute death sentences to life in prison without parole, for prisoners now on death row from a legal perspective.”

    It’s been done, Gov. Ryan’s (Ill) decision to do so comes to mind.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for