The Financial Cost of Sentencing Youth to Life without Parole in California

Text Box: The cost is high:
just the current juvenile LWOP population will cost the state approximately half a billion dollars.

Since 1990, California has spent between 66 and 83 million dollars incarcerating childhood offenders sentenced to life without parole, according to experts at the University of California at Berkeley and Tulane University.161 To incarcerate just those who have already been sentenced until their deaths in prison will cost the state a total of approximately half a billion dollars, including funds already spent and not adjusting for inflation.

Newly convicted youth offenders sentenced to life without parole will cost the state additional sums. Each new youth offender sentenced to life without parole will cost the state another 2 million to 2.5 million dollars.

Text Box: Billy G.

Billy G., age 17 at the time, met his 25-year-old-adult codefendant Paul a few days before the crime took place. “Paul and his cousin drive up in a ‘vette—he jumped out and had all these tattoos all over him. It kind of shocked [my brother and me] because we didn’t really associate with people like that,” he told Human Rights Watch. But Billy was attracted to the confidence Paul exuded and didn’t realize until later that he had been high on speed for seven or eight days straight. He offered to take Billy and his 19-year-old brother to go buy marijuana. Carrying guns, they drove around for hours smoking marijuana. Billy remembers feeling like he had found in Paul someone he could rely on, like a big brother or father. They pulled into a rest stop to use the bathroom. Billy said that as he returned to the car, he saw Paul in the parking lot, confronting passengers in another car. “He was becoming irate, you could tell by his demeanor and body language. I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’” 
“He told me to go to the other side of the car…I went to the other side of the car and there’s this individual staring at me.” He saw Paul had a gun out and Billy pulled out the one he was carrying and pointed in the car. “What was I thinking at the time?” he asks, and does not have an answer. “All of a sudden, there was a shot and a shattering of windows…It’s one of those haunting things—[I remember] this person’s eyes…” He ran back to the car and his brother jumped into the driver’s seat. As they sped off, he describes being in a state of disbelief. “I lay down in the backseat of the car and was thinking, ‘Man, this can’t be, this just can’t be happening—I can’t believe I’m involved in this.’” One person was killed, another wounded. The jury found he had no intent to kill, finding him guilty of assault with a firearm.
When Billy recounted to a Human Rights Watch researcher these events, he started sobbing and was unable to speak. When he was able, he said: “The human factor of being involved in taking someone’s life…It’s hard to put into words something of that magnitude,” he told us. “As a kid, you don’t realize how fragile life is or how fragile it becomes.” 
While in prison, Billy passed his General Education Development exam (GED), was involved in the Inmate Youth Offenders Program, participates in the Catalyst Program (a childhood trauma course), a conflict resolution program, and is enrolled in college courses. “There are plenty of people here who want to better themselves,” he said.
—Human Rights Watch interview with Billy G.,
serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007

161 Berkeley/Tulane Initiative on Vulnerable Populations (Patrick Vinck, Ph.D.), April 12, 2007. This figure was based on a general life expectancy in California of 78.2 years. There are no publicly available reliable estimates of life expectancy in California’s prisons. CJL Murray, SC Kulkarni, et al., “Eight Americas: Investigating Mortality Disparities across Races, Counties, and Race-Counties in the United States,” Public Library of Science Medicine, vol. 3, no. 9, September 12, 2006, The initiative’s estimate is based on a juvenile life without parole population of 219; considering the fact that the population is at least 227, the estimate may be low. Cost estimates are based on two state estimates of the cost of incarcerating each prisoner per year in California: $34,150 per year and $43,000 per year. Compare, California Legislative Analyst’s Office, “Criminal Law Primer for California,” January 1, 2007, (accessed October 28, 2007), p. 66  (estimating the annual cost to incarcerate a prisoner as over $43,000); and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, “Facts and Figures,” 4th Quarter  2005, (accessed October 28, 2007), (stating that the annual cost to incarcerate a prisoner in California is $34,000).