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Budgeting Life and Death

James Clark,
ACLU of Southern California
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September 24, 2010

The state of California has no budget, no money for child care centers and college students, and no hope that these problems will be solved anytime soon. But take heart, California, what we do have is a state-of-the-art death chamber. And soon we will have the best and brightest death row housing facility. Can anyone in Sacramento say “priorities”?

On September 22, “Day 83 Without a Budget,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger revealed a brand new execution chamber. This was his latest leap into the budgetary black hole that is the death penalty. While state employees have been furloughed, the inmates at San Quentin have been hard at work building the new facility to replace the rigged-up gas chamber they had been using. After a judge ruled it was too small and poorly lit to put people to death without risk of serious error, the new one boasts such improvements as a room with lights.

Its price tag? A mere $853,000.

A few weeks earlier, back on “Day 41 Without a Budget,” the governor “borrowed” $64 million from the state’s general fund, to be paid out of our still nonexistent state budget. That money will be used to begin construction of the new death row housing facility, which in the end will cost $400 million to build. That breaks down to about a half a million dollars per cell. The facility is being designed to hold 1,400 inmates—twice the number of people currently on death row. That’s because the government knows that almost everyone sentenced to death in California will not actually die in the shiny new execution chamber. In fact, almost all will die of natural causes, just like they do now.

The attorney general’s office claims we will use San Quentin’s brand new, well-lit execution facility next week, on “Day 91 Without a Budget,” to execute Albert Brown. But with three ongoing legal challenges to the lethal injection procedures, legal experts doubt the execution will actually take place.

Mr. Brown has been on death row for 28 years. Based on averages of the costs of death penalty trials, state-level appeals, and housing in San Quentin, the ACLU estimates his case has cost California $4,788,750 over and above the cost that would have been incurred if Mr. Brown was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Many people hear that and reason we could reduce the cost by decreasing the time spent on death row – after all, if he wasn’t on death row for 28 years, he couldn’t have racked up that $4 million dollar bill, right? Unfortunately not. In fact the reverse is true: speeding up the system would only cost more money. The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice concluded we would need to pay at least $95 million more per year to speed up the death penalty and increase its efficiency. That finding was agreed upon unanimously, by death penalty advocates and opponents alike.

Why? Because the bottleneck in death penalty cases isn’t too many appeals or sympathy for death row inmates, it’s the same thing that bottlenecks every other bureaucratic enterprise on earth: money. Currently, a person sentenced to death waits an average of five years before an attorney is even appointed for appeal and 10 years before the first appeal is actually heard in court. Faster appointments and hearings can only be accomplished by hiring more attorneys and court staff. In short, by spending more money.

While state employees prepare for an execution in between their furlough days, millions of dollars are sucked into California’s machinery of death. Every state program is facing drastic budget cuts, from education to health care to law enforcement, but we can still scrape together more than $800,000 for a state-of-the-art, well-lit killing chamber and remain on track to spend $1 billion on the death penalty in the next five years.

A safe and cost-effective alternative exists that can still salvage California from these absurd priorities. By cutting the death penalty and converting the sentences of more than 700 death row inmates to life without parole with work and restitution to the victims, we can save $1 billion in five years without releasing a single prisoner. Permanent imprisonment is swift and certain justice that keeps the public safe without sucking the budget dry.

(Originally posted on Calitics.)

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