Patterico's Pontifications


L.A. Times Exaggerates Cost of Death Penalty in California

Filed under: Crime,Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 8:47 pm

The Los Angeles Times has an article this morning about the cost of the death penalty. The article transparently exaggerates the cost of capital punishment as an alternative to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). The article is a perfect example of how ideological bias can prevent reporters and editors from spotting clear errors in their logic.

The article’s most egregious error is including the entire amount spent on capital appeals — about $56.5 million per year — as a “cost” of the death penalty. The piece simply tallies up the total amount spent on appeals by defendants facing death, and tells readers that every penny of that sum is attributable to capital punishment — as if convicted murderers facing LWOP don’t also appeal their convictions at state expense.

And that’s just the beginning. The article completely ignores other potential savings of the death penalty, essentially assigning them a dollar value of zero.

Here are the details:

The Times article claims:

According to state and federal records obtained by The Times, maintaining 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 . . .

Wrong. When the article gets around to doing the math, the reader learns that the article does not compare the cost of the death penalty to the cost of locking up convicts for life. Instead, as to capital appeals, the article compares the cost of the death penalty to the cost of doing absolutely nothing at all. It does this by adding up the total amount spent by the state on capital appeals, and including every cent as a cost of the death penalty:

The public cost of maintaining the death penalty, meanwhile, continues to mount. The annual bill breaks down like this:

[The article first calculates the extra costs associated with housing inmates on Death Row, putting the price tag at $57.5 million annually. It then moves on to the cost of appeals:]

• Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, whose deputies represent the counties during appeals, estimates that he devotes about 15% of his criminal division budget to capital cases, or about $11 million annually.

Let’s pause there. Obviously, if the defendants in those capital cases were sentenced to LWOP, they would still appeal their convictions. Without the death penalty, Lockyer’s office would not save $11 million per year. Instead, it would save only the fraction of that sum that his deputies spend briefing penalty phase issues in capital trials. On guilt phase issues, the issues and the necessary resources (and costs) would remain the same. Lockyer’s lawyers would still spend time reviewing trial transcripts, writing briefs, and researching legal issues.

Doing away with the penalty phase issues would reduce this cost, but not to the tune of $11 million. Yet the paper includes the entire $11 million as a “cost” of capital punishment.

The paper compounds this same error many times over when it describes the (much larger) budgets of appointed counsel for capital defendants:

• The California Supreme Court, which is required by law to review every death penalty case, spends $11.8 million annually for court-appointed defense counsel.

• The Office of the State Public Defender, which represents some death row inmates, has an annual budget of $11.3 million. The San Francisco-based Habeas Corpus Resource Center, another state-funded office, represents inmates and trains death penalty attorneys on a budget of $11 million.

• Finally, federal public defenders offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento, and private attorneys appointed by the federal court system for California cases, receive about $12 million annually.

The resulting $114-million annual cost does not include the substantial extra funds needed to try the complicated capital cases in county courts.

Again, by including these entire amounts as a “cost” of the death penalty, the article relies upon the transparently absurd assumption that defendants sentenced to LWOP would never appeal their convictions, thus allowing the state to save the full cost of appealing their convictions. The truth is exactly the opposite: virtually all defendants sentenced to LWOP appeal their convictions at state expense.

The proper measure of the extra cost of capital punishment is to 1) start with the amount being spent on capital appeals, and then 2) subtract the estimated cost of appealing those same convictions, assuming that the defendants were sentenced to LWOP rather than death. Today’s L.A. Times article never gets past step 1.

These are not the only potential savings ignored by the article. It is well known that defendants in special circumstances murder cases sometimes plead to LWOP to avoid the possibility of the death penalty. In these cases, their right to appeal is virtually nil. In almost every case, the state saves the cost of the trial and the cost of all appeals — all because of the death penalty.

The article takes no account of this benefit of the death penalty, and assigns a zero value to these savings.

Also, although it is hard (and perhaps impossible) to quantify, most death penalty supporters fervently believe that capital punishment deters some people from committing murders. The article not only makes no attempt to quantify the savings from any such deterrence, it does not even recognize the issue. Accordingly, it assigns a zero value to the savings from any such deterrence.

Finally, we’re not doing as bad as we thought, when you look at the numbers closely. The article observes:

Since 1978, during the same period that 11 inmates were put to death, 28 died naturally, 12 committed suicide and two were killed in incidents on the San Quentin exercise yard.

So: 53 cold-blooded murderers have died on California’s Death Row since 1978. A bare majority (28) died “naturally,” while 25 died from execution, suicide, or from apparent murders. That doesn’t sound so bad to me. And the resources we are expending will help insure that innocent people are not executed. That sounds like a good thing to me as well. Meanwhile, insisting on death as a punishment for the worst murders helps put a high value on innocent life, by making the penalty the highest one a civilized nation can extract.

All in all, we’re doing pretty well. We’re definitely doing better than the pseudo-journalists at the L.A. Times are willing to admit.

The people who put this article together should be ashamed of themselves. This article is pathetic even when judged according to the low, low standards of the L.A. Times.

UPDATE: I have added the phrase “as to capital appeals” to one sentence above, for clarification.

12 Responses to “L.A. Times Exaggerates Cost of Death Penalty in California”

  1. [...] @ 9:37 pm Reader Bill Millan forwarded my criticism of the recent L.A. Times article on the [...]

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  2. [...] n. I’m wondering if Steve Lopez wants to help me fill them. Like, for example, the errors the paper recently made in calculating the [...]

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  3. So: 53 cold-blooded murderers have died on California’s Death Row since 1978. A bare majority (28) died “naturally,” while 25 died from execution, suicide, or from apparent murders. That doesn’t sound so bad to me.

    It sounds horrible to me, though not for a reason the Pyongyang Times of Los Angeles is likely to care about. I find the fact that a death row inmate is slightly more likely to kill himself than be killed by the state, and twice as likely to die of natural causes, downright obscene.

    Xrlq (c51d0d)

  4. Patterico – thanks for busting the LAT, once again.

    Boman (c02fe6)

  5. I find the fact that a death row inmate is slightly more likely to kill himself than be killed by the state, and twice as likely to die of natural causes, downright obscene.

    Really? Part of the reason for that is that there appears to be a very high suicide rate. Over 20% of the deaths on Death Row have been from suicide. That’s a lot.

    If more than 20% of the 640 remaining Death Row inmates chose to “take responsibility” for their crimes in a similar fashion, that would be well over 100 suicides. I’d rather see them executed in due course than commit suicide. But — keeping in mind that we’re talking about the worst cold-blooded killers society has — I’d rather see them commit suicide than die of natural causes.

    We could do better, but I’m surprised we’re doing as well as we are.

    Patterico (756436)

  6. I agree that suicide among death row inmates beats death by natural causes, but among death row inmates, I find it pathetic that the number of deaths by execution doesn’t dwarf all other causes combined. In any event, the fact that suicide accounts for 20% of death row inmate deaths is not at all equivalent to a 20% suicide rate among the death row population at large. We haven’t had the fake death penalty long enough for that.

    Xrlq (c51d0d)

  7. There’s also the hidden value of having the death penalty as a prosecutor’s bargaining chip–in other words, if you tell us where the bodies are buried, or if you testify that Gang Leader X ordered you to kill this person, we’ll give you LWOP. Without the death penalty card in a prosecutor’s hand, the bargaining would start at LWOP and end up somewhere much more lenient.

    The problem is that this value is almost impossible to quantify. There’s no way to examine the counterfactual and determine whether a defendant who agrees to LWOP to avoid the death penalty would have been a continued criminal risk had he started at LWOP and bargained down to twenty years. But I’ll bet there’s a significant value in keeping them locked up. Then, the value of their testimony to avoid death must also be great but hard to measure. What’s the value to society of having a particular kingpin off the streets, or the value of closure of having a missing child found?

    I don’t think the LA TImes has begun to capture the true economic value of the death penalty. But you know what? The whole argument’s a red herring. The purpose of the death penalty is ultimately retribution and punishment. Deterrence is a secondary benefit.

    (Sorry if this is a double post–it didn’t go up last time.)

    See-Dubya (85b967)

  8. Doesn’t anyone find it pathetic that it takes so long for a state, any state to administer the death penalty in the first place?

    russ (1a796d)

  9. so where does all the money that is spent on the execution go? who are we paying all this money to for killing these guys?

    Cyle (54a7a7)

  10. I think you fail to realize the fact that ALL death penalty cases are subject to mandatory appeals and review proceedings. Whereas LWOP cases are not. You make the arguement that every LWOP defendant would obviously appeal, true, except that they can’t because it costs too much. Which is the same reason why every criminal does not appeal every criminal conviction. Death penalty cases are guarranteed appeals and reviews whereas LWOP cases are not. So… while every LWOP defendant “would” appeal, few do because the resources aren’t there. Therefore, yes it does cost each and every state with a death penalty statute more money to prosecute and defend on a capital punishment case than on a LWOP case.

    Ross (a22e3b)

  11. [...] swallowed whole a ridiculous liberal claim about the cost of the death penalty. (Editors have a history of making similar claims [...]

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