Death tax

To download a copy of “The Hidden Death Tax,” go to

Would it surprise you to know that cash-strapped California taxpayers are spending hundreds of millions each year, without even knowing it, to keep up appearances on death row?

Well, it’s true. A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California details, for the first time, how our state’s death row is basically a money pit. “The Hidden Death Tax” details how we spend $117 million each year on post-conviction prosecution and law-enforcement costs related to seeking the execution of people currently on death row. That averages out to $175,000 per inmate per year.

The 45-page report found that simply housing prisoners on death row is the largest expense and “costs state taxpayers $90,000 more per year, per inmate, than housing them within the general prison population,” according to Natasha Minsker, the ACLU’s death penalty policy director.

Also, death-penalty cases are notoriously more difficult—and therefore more expensive—to prepare than most any other type of case. In the death-penalty trial of Scott Peterson, for example, prosecutorial staff spent more than 20,000 hours preparing. Compare that to a non-death-penalty trial, where prosecutors log far fewer hours, usually about one tenth as many.

“The Hidden Death Tax” concludes with a quick computation: The dollars we spend each year in California pursuing the death penalty for prisoners (instead of just life imprisonment) could pay the annual salaries of 2,500 teachers or 2,250 new California Highway Patrol officers. Hmmm. Better education or increased safety. Either sounds like a better place than death row to invest our state’s limited resources.