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California Ignores Obvious Budget Solution: Cut the Death Penalty

James Clark,
ACLU of Southern California
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January 14, 2011

California's new governor Jerry Brown confronted the state's dire budget crisis this week when he released his budget proposal. True to his word, the proposal contains hard cuts to social services across the board, ensuring that California's most vulnerable will have an even tougher time staying healthy and making ends meet.

He was slightly less true to his word, though, when it came to his oft-repeated slogan that "everything is on the table." At least one overfunded, broken government program was allowed to keep its bloated budget without a single cut: the state's billion-dollar death penalty.

Did the governor miss this massive drain on funds, or is there a sacred cow in California's budget after all? Maybe he can be excused on the grounds that there's no "death penalty" line item anywhere in the budget. But, of course, the reason there's no "death penalty" line item is that the $1 billion the death penalty will cost over the next five years is hidden throughout a half-dozen judicial and corrections budget items — any one of which could be trimmed by the governor. Let's go down the line:

  • There's the $1 million per death penalty trial over and above the cost of non-death penalty murder trials, which comes from county prosecutors' budgets.
  • Then there's the $63 million per year extra spent housing people on death row and another $60 million spent on their appeals, again over and above the cost of housing and appeals for life without parole. Those costs are tucked away in the budgets for corrections, the Supreme Court, the attorney general's office and public defense.
  • Finally, the kicker is the brand new death row facility we're about to build that will cost $400 million.

Over five years, that tally comes to just over $1 billion.

Now, repealing the death penalty in California can only be done at the ballot box, but defunding the whole system can be done with a few strokes of the governor's pen: just ask any senior citizen, recipient of in-home medical care, or single working parent. They'll tell you how powerful that pen can be when it comes to cutting government programs.

Alternatively, if the governor converted the sentences of California's more than 700 residents of death row to life without parole, he'd save that whole billion dollars in one swoop: no more extra housing costs, no more extra appeals costs, no more new death row. That's a lot of money that could go towards much-needed programs and services.

And it's not as if the people of the state are clamoring for more death penalty spending over other issues, like, education, crime prevention, health care, or social safety nets. While Gov. Brown may have assumed that the death penalty really is precious to California voters, his own election proved otherwise. Even after Meg Whitman saturated the airwaves bashing Brown for his anti-death penalty record, Californians still elected the guy. We also voted down a Senate candidate who campaigned on being pro-death penalty, and elected an anti-death penalty attorney general, Kamala Harris, over a prosecutor known nationwide for his aggressive pursuit of death sentences.

Why did we vote in Jerry Brown again? Maybe we're ready for some realistic and pragmatic change. Maybe we're ready to prioritize victims, community safety, and health above executions. Maybe we're ready to Cut This. Send Gov. Brown a message that if he's going to cut anything from California's budget, he should cut the death penalty.

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