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An Honest Conversation about the Death Penalty

Ramona Ripston,
ACLU of Southern California
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May 29, 2009

California remains on track to spend over $1 billion on the death penalty in the next five years, in the midst of the worst financial crisis in nearly a century. Incredibly, even as state officials announce that they must fill a deficit of $21.3 billion this year, and contemplate drastic cuts in the most basic services, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger continues to support funding to pursue capital prosecutions — a breathtakingly expensive and ineffective policy that does nothing to promote public safety.

No state spends more on the death penalty than California. A bipartisan panel of criminal justice experts, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (CCFAJ), concluded last year that the state spends $125 million more each year on the death penalty than it would spend if we sentenced these same offenders to permanent incarceration, where they would die of natural causes. Because the state now houses 680 death row inmates, it must also build a new housing facility at a staggering estimated cost of $400 million.

Total price tag for the next five years: $1 billion. That’s about $1.5 million per person on death row.

Meanwhile, last week, Schwarzenegger proposed another $3 billion in cuts to education, $2 billion in cuts to county governments which fund local law enforcement, and more than $120 million in cuts to substance abuse, crime-prevention, and domestic violence programs. These cuts will cripple initiatives that actually make communities safer. As a result, more police will be laid off, more children will drop out of school, fewer individuals will receive treatment for their addictions, and fewer victims of abuse will be protected from their assailants. The most devastating impact will be felt in communities of color — the communities hardest hit by poverty, violence and crime.

Consider one public safety goal that’s particularly important to everyone: solving murders and keeping those who commit them off the streets. Yet nearly half of all homicides in California go unsolved. The numbers are even higher in densely populated, urban communities of color. One major reason for this is a lack of funds for cold case and investigative units in police forces. Wouldn’t we all be safer if we took some of the resources currently used to prosecute capital cases and invested them instead in the homicide units of law enforcement agencies?

Another route to improved safety would be to increase high-school graduation rates. Economists have estimated that this would not only reduce the numbers of crimes committed, but also reduce other costs, such as public welfare, while increasing the nation’s economic output. So why are we closing schools and cutting education programs that will reduce dropout rates, while keeping the death penalty in business?

Most people hear this and can’t understand why the death penalty is so costly. The death penalty costs so much more because death is different: Our mistakes cannot be undone. Death penalty trials require specially trained judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors, and they require more resources on all sides. The jury must decide not just guilt or innocence but life or death. This requires testimony from experts in mental illness and forensics, and thousands of hours of investigation. The Scott Peterson trial, for example, required more than 20,000 hours of work by the prosecution. Another death penalty trial cost $10 million. The death penalty also brings excessive incarceration expenses: it costs $90,000 more per year to house a person on death row than to house them in the general prison population.

Some people suggest we could save resources by shortening the appeals process of those condemned to die. But the costs of the trials would remain no matter what happens with the appeals. In addition, the CCFAJ found serious flaws in California’s application of the death penalty, including hundreds of indigent Death Row inmates without lawyers; a high error rate in death penalty trials; and the persistent threat of wrongful convictions caused by faulty eyewitness identification, ineffective assistance of counsel and false testimony. The Commission concluded that the only way to address these problems and reduce the length of appeals would be to spend $100 million each year above the extra costs already imposed by the death penalty. (Read the full report at

Do we really want to spend another $100 million each year in California on an already costly and faulty state killing machine — especially when we have cheaper, less error-prone and safe alternatives — even as we lay off teachers, firefighters and police, allow our children’s schools to crumble, and fail to protect victims of domestic violence? What does that say about our values and our priorities? Is that the kind of society we want our children to inherit?

The time is long overdue for an honest conversation about the price we pay to maintain the death penalty in California. On May 31, Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree will host a forum sponsored by the Los Angeles Coalition for Death Penalty Alternatives at FAME Renaissance Center, 1968 West Adams Blvd in Los Angeles so that we, the people, can weigh in on these important questions. Please join us and add your voice.

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