True Cost of the Death Penalty

Capital punishment in California, as in every other state, is more expensive than a life imprisonment sentence without the opportunity of parole. These costs are not the result of frivolous appeals but rather the result of Constitutionally mandated safeguards that can be summarized as follows:

Juries must be given clear guidelines on sentencing, which result in explicit provisions for what constitutes aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Defendants must have a dual trial--one to establish guilt or innocence and if guilty a second trial to determine whether or not they would get the death penalty. Defendants sentenced to death are granted oversight protection in an automatic appeal to the state supreme court. These constitutional safeguards translate into:

  • a more extensive jury selection procedure
  • a four fold increase in the number of motions filed a longer
  • dual trial process more investigators and expert testimony
  • more lawyers specializing in death penalty litigation
  • automatic, mandatory appeals.

Since there are few defendants who will plead guilty to a capital charge, virtually every death penalty trial becomes a jury trial with all of the above necessary requirements and expenses.

David Erickson's study of Los Angeles County breaks down the cost of a capital trial and compares it with the costs of a murder trial where the death penalty is not sought. The following schedule is a summary of Erickson's cost study of a death penalty trial in Los Angeles County only.




Defense Attorney



Defense Investigation



Prosecution Attorney



Prosecution Investigation






LA Jail



Total Cost to LA County



If the cost of incarceration on death row and the cost for the mandated appeal to the State Supreme Court were added to the above capital trial expenses, the cost would increase to an estimated 2.5 to 3 million dollars per execution.

If the cost of incarceration of an inmate sentenced to life imprisonment without parole (LWOP) were added to the above non-capital trial expenses, which is less expensive than confinement of an individual on death row, the cost of LWOP would increase to an estimated 1 to 1.5 million dollars.

General Studies

A study done by the Sacramento Bee argued that California would save $90 million per year if it were to abolish the death penalty.

The average cost of a capital trial in Texas is $2.3 million--three times the cost to incarcerate an individual for 40 years.

The average cost of a capital trial in Florida is $3.2 million.