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.