Capitol Alert

Death penalty opponents exaggerate cost of executions in new ad

If voters approve Proposition 62 this November, California would replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Rather than focusing on moral arguments, supporters of the initiative have sought to make the campaign an issue of fiscal sensibility.

In a new television ad, Ron Briggs, who managed his father’s successful 1978 ballot measure to expand California’s death penalty, says it was a mistake, emphasizing that the state would save money if it abolishes capital punishment. But the spot paints an exaggerated picture of the cost by juxtaposing unrelated figures.


Thirty-eight years ago I made a big mistake, and you’ve been paying for it ever since. I helped lead the campaign that brought the death penalty back to California. I thought we’d save money. Instead, we’ve wasted $5 billion on just 13 executions. That’s why I support Prop. 62. It replaces the death penalty with life without parole, it makes prisoners work to pay restitution, and it saves $150 million every year. Vote Yes on 62.


Just how much California has spent on the death penalty since it was reinstated nearly 40 years ago is a matter of some dispute. The state has never conducted an official accounting, but opponents point to a 2011 study conducted by a federal appellate judge and a law school professor. Analyzing the cost of pretrial investigations, capital trials, lengthy appeals and decades of incarceration, the authors of the study estimated that California had spent $4 billion more than it would have with a system where life imprisonment is the maximum penalty. That estimate was updated to $5 billion this year.

It’s not an unreasonable figure. An analysis of Proposition 62 by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that the measure would save about $150 million annually on things like the sentencing phase of capital trials, public defenders’ fees, automatic appeals to the California Supreme Court and single cells on death row. That number could be higher or lower by tens of millions of dollars.

To suggest that it is the cost of just 13 executions, however, is blatantly false. While few Californians have been executed over the past four decades, more than 900 have been sentenced to die during that time. There are nearly 750 inmates currently on death row.

Briggs also overstates his role in the bringing the death penalty back to California. Capital punishment was reinstated by the Legislature in 1977, when the Legislature overrode a veto from Gov. Jerry Brown. Briggs’ initiative the following year increased the penalties for murder and added to the list of special circumstances under which a death sentence would apply.

But the ad otherwise accurately portrays the effects of Proposition 62. If it passes, even current death row inmates would be resentenced to life without parole. Moved to other, lower-security facilities, they would be required to work in jobs like the prison kitchen or laundry, with up to 60 percent of their wage going to victims’ families as restitution. Presently, very few death row inmates are allowed to work.

PoliGRAPH is The Bee’s political fact checker, rating campaign advertisements and candidate claims as True, Iffy or False.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff