When Donald Beardslee, 61. was executed in California on Jan. 19–the state’s first in more than three years–he had been on death row longer than the entire life span of one of his victims, the Los Angeles Times reports. Despite the state’s willingness to hand out death sentences, it is one of the more hesitant among the 38 capital punishment states to use the penalty. The Times says that causes some to question if the enormous ongoing cost of capital punishment is worth the relatively few executions it produces.
California has 640 inmates on death row, about 20 percent of the nation’s total. But the state has accounted for only 1 percent of the nation’s executions – 11 – since 1978, when the death penalty was restored. “What we are paying for at such great cost,” said UC Berkeley law professor Frank Zimring, “is essentially our own ambivalence about capital punishment. We try to maintain the apparatus of state killing and another apparatus that almost guarantees that it won’t happen. The public pays for both sides.” 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 and not counting the millions more in court costs needed to prosecute capital cases and hold post-conviction hearings in state and federal courts. With 11 executions spread over 27 years, on a per-execution basis, California and federal taxpayers have paid more than a quarter of a billion dollars for each life taken at state hands.