Should California Kill the Death Penalty to Save Billions?

On the heels of a comprehensive study about the huge price tag on California's death row, one state senator proposes to abolish the death penalty once and for all.
by | June 21, 2011
 

Capital punishment in California could cost taxpayers up to $9 billion by 2030, according to a new comprehensive report, but one state senator wants to eliminate the death row for good.

The study, set to be published next week in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, found that California residents have spent $4 billion on the death penalty (about $308 million for each of the 13 executions) since it was reinstated in 1978. The report authors, U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula Mitchell, say that legal and security expenses of death row cost an extra $184 million a year.

State Senate Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Loni Hancock, a Democrat, plans to introduce a bill to abolish death row. The legislation details have yet to be worked out, but she would rather convert the sentences of the 714 people on death row to life without the possibility of parole.

"Capital punishment is an expensive failure and an example of the dysfunction of our prisons," Hancock, who also chairs the budget subcommittee that oversees prison spending, said in a news release. "California's death row is the largest and most costly in the United States. It is not helping to protect our state; it is helping to bankrupt us."

Her announcement couldn’t have come at a better time. Gov. Jerry Brown just vetoed the state budget Democrats crammed through at the last minute, forcing California’s fiscal drama into extra innings. The plan, Brown said, was full of “legally questionable maneuvers” that would have deferred billions of dollars into the future and raising the state's sales tax, among other things. Before the deadline, state Controller John Chiang threatened to dock the pay of lawmakers if they failed to meet the constitutional requirements for the budget bills. He’s analyzing the plan now.

But as the budget bedlam continues in the capital city, the ripple effect is spreading felt far and wide. Throughout California, 70 out of 278 parks are slated to close next year, the first in the 84-year history of the state park system. Several public colleges have chosen to reduce or slash summer classes to preserve more fall and spring programs.

The push to eliminate California’s death penalty will, of course, heat up greater debate. A 2010 Field Poll found 70 percent of California voters support capital punishment, up from 67 percent in 2006. Supporters of the death penalty contend that life without parole doesn’t fit certain crimes and that fiscal policy has nothing to do with criminal justice. On the other hand, opponents will fight back with points about wasting billions and wrongful executions. As Hancock noted in the San Jose Mercury-News, Illinois executed more than a dozen people before abolishing capital punishment earlier this year.

But no matter what side you're on, you can't ignore the numbers.

"We're not in the business of drafting initiatives, but we do propose ways the voters should consider to remedy this horrible situation," Loyola Law School Professor Mitchell told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We really wanted for this study to be academic and objective and to leave aside the question of morality over the death penalty so that voters can focus clearly on what they are spending.

"If people really knew what the death penalty costs us," Mitchell added, "I doubt they would want to continue it."

Sen. Hancock doesn’t think so either.

"Today we're not tough on crime; we're tough on the taxpayer," Hancock said in her release. "Every time we spend money on failed policies like the death penalty, we drain money from having more police officers on the street, more job training, more education, more of the things that would truly make for safer communities."

Where do you stand? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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