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New Mexico Takes a Bold Step in the Right Direction, the Rest of Us Should Follow

Natasha Minsker,
ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy
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March 20, 2009

Last Wednesday, in a significant development in the national trend away from the death penalty, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed legislation that replaces the death penalty with permanent imprisonment in New Mexico. Gov. Richardson had been a life-long supporter of the death penalty, but was willing to reconsider in light of new facts and 30 years of problems with the death penalty. New Mexico became the 15th state without the death penalty, and the first in the continental western U.S.

New Mexico isn't the only state taking another look at the death penalty. Bills to repeal, study or place a moratorium on executions are being considered in seven other states: Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, and New Hampshire. Why now? The nation's economic crisis has finally focused policy makers' attention on the question, is the death penalty really worth the costs?

In California, we're setting new records for the unprecedented magnitude of our death row spending while our state budget crisis continues to worsen. California should serve as an unfortunate example of what not do, and how bad it can get.

Last summer, a bipartisan panel of criminal justice experts concluded that California's death penalty — with 669 inmates at the time of their study — costs the state $125 million more than the alternative of permanent imprisonment. The Commission also found a serious, continuing risk that individuals would be wrongfully sentenced to death, and that the lengthy death penalty appeals process in California — now averaging 25 years — caused more pain and trauma to the family members of murder victims.

The Commission concluded that the state has three options: (1) spend more than $250 million each year in an effort to improve the death penalty system; (2) drastically narrow the scope of the death penalty; or (3) replace the death penalty with life in prison with absolutely no possibility of parole.

Almost a year later, California spends even more money on a more broken system.

The ACLU of Northern California just released an updated report on the costs of the death penalty and how it is used across the state. This report reveals that in 2008, California's death row population increased by 11 prisoners, adding $1 million to the additional costs of housing on death row. Housing costs alone for the 680 people on death row now total $61.2 million a year. When the costs of mandatory appeals are included, the total price tag rises to $118 million each year above the costs of permanent imprisonment.

Data from 2008 also reveals that just a handful of California counties are breaking from the statewide trend and sentencing an increasing number of people to die, creating huge burdens for the entire state to bear. In 2008, seven counties — out of a total of 58 — sentenced a combined total of 20 people to execution. Only five counties — Alameda, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino — sentenced more than one person to death in 2008. These five counties are the only counties in the state that have sentenced more than 10 people to execution since 2000.

Meanwhile, California's budget couldn't be in worse condition: pink slips continue to go out to teachers, and some counties contemplate laying off prosecutors and police officers, while we struggle to cope with a multibillion dollar budget deficit. Yet, in addition to throwing away $118 million each year on the maintenance costs of the death penalty, the state plans to spend $400 million for the construction of a new death row facility, $136 million of which is in this year's budget.

Gov. Richardson's courageous step should be a wake-up call for leaders in the remaining death penalty states like California. We are at a crossroads: we can choose to follow New Mexico's lead, stop wasting precious resources on the death penalty and make our communities safer by replacing it with life in prison with absolutely no possibility of parole. Or, we can continue to throw money at a system that is prone to error and injustice and does not serve the needs of victims' survivors. After serious reflection, the choice was clear to New Mexico, and should be to the rest of us.

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