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Illinois Proves (Again) That Ending the Death Penalty Saves Money

A lot of money.
James Clark,
ACLU of Southern California
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April 5, 2011

(Originally posted on

Thanks to Illinois, we now have more proof: ending the death penalty saves money — a lot of money — and quickly.

So what is California waiting for?

It’s less than a month since Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed the death penalty repeal bill, replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole and diverting the cost savings to victims’ services. Just two weeks later savings had already reached $4.7 million!

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

These first budgetary savings in Illinois came through the State Appellate Defender’s office, which is the office that provides attorneys for men and women on death row who otherwise can’t afford their own lawyer for appeals. With the end of the death penalty, that agency has been closed. Now the entire budget of nearly $5 million can be directed to victims’ services. And some of the highly-trained and experienced attorneys from that office are elated at being out of work for such good reason.

The 37 jobs once held by these lawyers perfectly illustrate why the death penalty is so expensive. When a poor person is sentenced to life without parole, the state goes to reasonable lengths to make sure the conviction was valid and due process was met by providing the person with a lawyer and paths to one appeal.

But if the sentence is death, the state’s responsibility is drastically more important. In order to make sure the state doesn’t make the ultimate mistake and execute an innocent person, it provides poor people on death row with attorneys and investigators for habeas corpus, a whole other set of appeals. As a general rule, it’s only in this second appeals process that people are allowed to present new evidence that they are actually innocent, or mentally retarded, or were represented at trial by an incompetent attorney. And, because someone’s life is at stake, capital appeals lawyers must be some of the best attorneys available and have more training and experience than their colleagues handling lower-stakes cases.

Illinois had only 15 people on death row but it still needed an agency with 37 staff members and an annual budget of $4.7 million to defend them on appeal.

California has more than 700 people on death row — almost 50 times as many. We have three state agencies that only work on death penalty cases, plus we hire private attorneys, costing the state $38 million each year. And that still is not enough to pay for all the attorneys needed: 45 percent of the people on death row in California do not even have an attorney for the habeas process yet.

If California followed Illinois’ lead, we could immediately close three state offices and lay off hundreds of death penalty attorneys, saving $38 million just as quickly as Illinois. And that’s only the beginning.

Prosecutors no longer charged with life and death decisions will be able to devote their time to other cases with lower stakes, saving the vast resources spent on death cases. Jurors will no longer have to go through exceptionally long selection processes to become “death qualified,” or attend additional penalty phases to decide who lives and who dies. Those convicted will no longer reside in separate death row facilities with higher housing costs, and will have reasonably limited appeals that will never run the risk of executing an innocent life.

In California, those changes would translate into these real dollars:

  • $4 million saved from cuts to the California Supreme Court
  • $12 million saved from cuts to the Attorney General’s Office
  • $20 million saved by individual counties
  • $38 million saved by closing defense agencies
  • $63 million saved by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
  • $400 million saved by avoiding the construction of a new death row

Grand total: $1 billion in five years.

These are the kinds of savings all of the other 34 death penalty states can expect to see if they follow Illinois’ footsteps and repeal the death penalty. But here in California where we foot the bill for the nation’s biggest, most expensive, and fastest growing death row, the numbers are astronomically high.

Repealing the death penalty and replacing it with life without parole will provide real money right away that can make a real difference in people’s lives.

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