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Save $1 Billion in Five Years — End the Death Penalty in California

Natasha Minsker,
ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy
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May 21, 2009

In the market for a prime piece of real estate? Governor Schwarzenegger has the deal for you! Facing a $21.3 Billion budget deficit in California, Schwarzenegger has offered to sell state-owned property to make up the difference. The crown jewel of the proposed fire sale is San Quentin State Prison, home to California’s death row and beautifully situated in the San Francisco Bay.

But before he can flip San Quentin for a profit, Gov. Schwarzenegger will have to figure out what to do with the 680 condemned inmates who currently call it home. Fortunately, there is a solution. The best way to solve California’s budget woes would be to do away with the death penalty all together. By eliminating the death penalty, the state will save $1 billion in five years. And that’s not even counting the profit from selling San Quentin.

California currently has the largest death row in the country and spends more than any other state on the death penalty. In the next five years, California can save $1 billion by getting rid of the death penalty. Here’s how:

  • Save $125 million per year by cutting extra costs of the death penalty — costs not incurred through permanent imprisonment. According to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, the annual cost of California’s death penalty to the state is $137 million. If the worst offenders were condemned to permanent imprisonment instead, the cost would be only $11 million and California would not be any less safe.
  • Save $400 million in construction of a new housing facility for death row inmates. According to the State Auditor, this is how much it will cost to build a new facility at San Quentin, needed because the current facility is filled past capacity. And this is the state’s cost saving measure; building at any other site will be even more expensive.

Keep in mind that any attempt to “speed up” the death penalty will cost even more. The California Commission concluded that in order to reduce the time needed to review death penalty cases, the state would need to spend an additional $100 million each year.

These figures don’t even take into consideration the windfall profits from selling off San Quentin, if anyone even wants it. But before death row can go on the market, Gov. Schwarzenegger will have to come up with an effective alternative for the inmates already living there. Luckily, California has such an alternative already in place — permanent imprisonment — which is just as safe as and so much less expensive than capital punishment. The money saved can be used to provide victims’ services or other crime prevention measures. And there would still be money left to help dig California out of this economic hole.

Right now, Gov. Schwarzenegger can convert all of the current death sentences to sentences of permanent imprisonment, ensuring these inmates are kept off the streets forever and die in prison. Every guilty person sentenced to permanent imprisonment in California stays in prison until he or she dies, and it costs $175,000 less per inmate per year than a sentence of death by execution.

Before selling San Quentin, the Legislature will also need to temporarily suspend any new death sentences until the state recovers from the current fiscal crisis so we don’t recreate the current problem. As an added bonus, suspending new death penalty trials would also save county budgets, which are in no better condition than the state budget. Each death penalty trial costs the local counties at least $1.1 million more than a trial where the district attorney seeks a sentence of permanent imprisonment. California currently averages about 20 new death sentences a year, so stopping death penalty trials could save counties an additional $100 million in five years.

Of the many proposals Gov. Schwarzenegger has put before the voters and the legislature to rescue the state from financial meltdown — all of which have failed — none are quite as simple or reasonable as suspending the death penalty and saving $1 billion in five years. Since the Governor is now into real estate, he should know a “money pit” when he sees it. The longer he waits, the more money he wastes.

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