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After 30 Years, California Examines its Dysfunctional Death Penalty

Natasha Minsker,
Director,
ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy
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June 23, 2008

Originally posted on Daily Kos.

It’s never too late.

After30 years of executions, the state of California is finally conductingan exhaustive review of the death penalty system. While the reportwill not be released to the public for another few weeks, thetroubling evidence they reviewed is already known.

Highlightsinclude: extraordinarily high costs, an unacceptable backlog ofcapital cases, as well as racial, ethnic, and geographic disparitiesin sentencing—problems with the administration of the deathpenaltyin California are in no short supply. The upcoming report by the CaliforniaCommission on the Fair Administration of Justice (CCFAJ)will focus on whether it’ possible to fix these problems,and ifso, how much we will have to pay to implement the needed remedies.Bottom line, Californians will need to decide, is it worth the price?

Inpreparation forthis report, due out June 30, the commission conducted hearingsacross the state, hearing testimonyfrom more than 70 witnesses and reviewing thousands of pages ofwritten submissions, all highlighting a myriad of problems withCalifornia’ death penalty.

Experttestimonyhas raised the following concerns, among others:

  • Thedeath penalty process costs California an estimated $139million a year.
  • Californiahas the largest death row in the country with 670 people currentlysentenced to death.
  • Increasingdemands on the California judiciary mean less time to devote to thedeath penalty appeals process, which in turn leads to unacceptabledelays in the administration of justice.
  • Despiteefforts on the part of the California Supreme Court, the extremedemands of death penalty-related cases continueto stress their capacity.
  • Legallyinappropriate factors, including race and geography, havean impact on who is sentenced to death.
  • Californiahas had between 79and 170 people on death row withoutcounsel in recent years.
  • Familymembers of murder victims are dragged through years and years ofappeals, sometimes even after they tell the district attorney that theydon’t want the death penalty.

Theseand otherproblems led Chief Justice of the California’ Supreme Courttotell the commission that California’ death penalty isdysfunctional and, if nothing is done, will “collapse of itsownweight.” The task for the commission is to decide, what canbe doneand at what cost?

Welook forward tothe commission’ findings and encourage you to keep an eyeout forthis important assessment of the state of justice in California.

Forfurtherbackground on the death penalty in California see DeathPenalty Focus, CaliforniaCrime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty,and the ACLUof Northern California.

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