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Death, Taxes...and Dry Cleaning?

Natasha Minsker,
ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy
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March 31, 2008

Heads up, Californians. Your state’s death row is a money pit, and the government is throwing tons of taxpayer cash into it despite a wealth of evidence that it is a bad investment.

On Friday, the ACLU of Northern California released two reports on the state’s capital punishment system. The Hidden Death Tax reveals for the first time the exorbitant cost of death penalty trials. In its analysis, the report tallies up a total post-conviction prosecution and law enforcement bill of $117 million to California taxpayers every year.

And it’s no wonder the price is so steep, when you consider all of the hours prosecutors work on these cases. In the death penalty trial of Scott Peterson, for example, prosecution staff spent more than 20,000 hours on the case. In the death penalty trial of Rex Allen Krebs, prosecution staff spent more than 8,700 hours on the case. In the non-death penalty trial, prosecution staff logged only 1,600 hours.

The report also finds that executing all of the people currently on death row, or waiting for them to die there of other causes,will cost Californians an estimated $4 billion more than if they had been sentenced to life in prison. In fact, merely housing prisoners on death row costs the state $90,000 more per year, per inmate, than housing them with the general prison population.

The Hidden Death Tax also reveals some startling figures that you wouldn’t expect to find on an expense sheet for prosecuting a death penalty case. But there it is, on Page 26 of the report, a dry-cleaning bill of $937.45, and a $387 worth of oil changes, car washes and smog checks.

The second report, Death by Geography, looks at county-by-county disparities in death sentencing. For instance, the report finds that a resident of Alameda county is eight times more likely to be sentenced to death than a resident of nearby Santa Clara. And counties that sentence people to death do not experience lower homicide rates or higher rates of solving homicides. What pursuing a death sentence does do is waste money that could be used for important programs that are proven to effect positive changes in crime and violence, like hiring more teachers for the public schools or more CHP officers to stop drunk drivers.

California’s death penalty is arbitrary, ineffective and a waste of critical resources. What’s that other familiar saying? Three strikes and you’re out?

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