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It's Official — California's Death Penalty is a Multi-Million Dollar Failure. Now What?

Natasha Minsker,
ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy
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June 30, 2008

A panel of experts, including 10 law enforcement officers and prosecutors, unanimously agrees that California’s death penalty is utterly broken. To fix it, we’ll need to spend over $200 million per year. The current failed system already costs over $137 million more each year than our alternative of permanent imprisonment. Today’s report forces all Californians to ask: how much we are willing to pay for our death penalty when we have an alternative that punishes criminals and protects our communities without making us bankrupt?

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According to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice — a bi-partisan blue ribbon panel created by the California Senate in 2004, which just issued the first ever comprehensive report on the state’s death penalty system — we have three options for dealing with our death penalty crisis.

First, if we decide that we simply can’t part with a system that we now know drains critical resources from public safety budgets, puts innocent lives at risk, harms murder victim family members, and is applied unfairly, then we need to commit to spending over $200 million in tax dollars every year to make the system operational on the most basic levels.

The Commission estimates that in order to make the system function, we would have to spend nearly $100 million more each year to pay for more prosecution and defense lawyers, and more court staff to handle the enormous volume of death penalty cases and appeals. When you add that to the money we already spend, it totals $217 million a year. On top of that, the State Auditor recently concluded that it will cost almost $400 million to build a new death row housing facility at San Quentin, on ground that is literally sinking into the sea.

Considering California’s fiscal crisis, spending all of this money is not only unlikely, it’s impossible.

And none of these proposed reforms would adequately address one of the most troubling flaws in California’s death penalty, the racial and geographic disparities that call the very fairness and justice of the system into question. Despite evidence and testimony from several researchers indicating that race and place play a significant role in determining who lives and who dies, proposed reforms to address these issues are noticeably lacking from the Commission’s report. Reforms that would begin to address those flaws would certainly cost more.

Our second option, according to the Commission, is to acknowledge that we have the most extreme death penalty statute in the country, resulting in an insupportably large death row population, and that we can’t afford a system this big and bloated.

We all agree that we want a criminal justice system that delivers justice fairly. The overwhelming demands of our current death penalty system, however, overburden courts, lawyers and public safety officials at every level, jeopardizing the foundations of our justice system. The Commission suggests that we could limit the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty in order to ease some of the burden. This would still cost more than $100 million a year, depending on how much smaller we make the “smaller death penalty.”

While both of these options provide a healthy dose of reality about how large and unmanageable our death penalty is, the Commission report also highlights the fact that we already pay many millions of dollars on the current failed death penalty, and that a cheaper, more effective system is not only feasible, it’s already in place.

Few people realize that condemning someone to permanent imprisonment costs California taxpayers millions of dollars less than sentencing him or her to death. We have had the option of permanent imprisonment for as long as we have had the death penalty, and it’s proven itself to be a more functional system that serves as a severe, but cost effective, punishment.

Which brings us to our third option, according to the Commission: replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment until death, and save millions of dollars for public safety programs that actually work to punish criminals, protect the public and help victims. This would cost us less than $12 million, a savings of more than $200 million a year over option one.

The Commission does not come out and officially endorse this or any other option. In some sense, that’s a cop out. On the other hand, the Commission puts the decision right where it should be: in the hand of the voters. It’s time for those of us who are writing the checks to fund the system if to ask if it’s really worth the price.

To read the Commission’s report, visit:

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