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Time for California to Catch Up with the Death Penalty Decline

Natasha Minsker,
ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy
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March 30, 2010

Most of the country seems to be getting it: The death penalty is expensive and risky. The expense to execute a prisoner is staggering: in California, the cost of death row housing alone is $90,000 more per year, per inmate (PDF) compared to housing in other high security prisons, adding up to more than $63 million each year. A shift from death sentences to permanent imprisonment means significant savings and eliminates the risk of executing the innocent. That’s why a growing number of states are choosing permanent imprisonment over the death penalty. In fact, in 2009, the number of new death sentences nationwide reached the lowest level (PDF) since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Why, then, is California going in the wrong direction? The Golden State sent more people to death row last year than it did in the prior seven years. At the end of 2009, California’s death row was by far the largest and most costly in the United States.

The ACLU’s new report, Death in Decline ’09 (PDF), shows, in fact, the majority of California counties are getting it right: most of California’s 58 counties have effectively replaced the death penalty with permanent imprisonment. Pursuit of the death penalty in California is limited to just a few “killer counties.” Only three — Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside — accounted for 83 percent of all death sentences in 2009. The strange reality is fewer and fewer California counties are sending more and more people to death row.

Most shocking is Los Angeles County. With 13 death sentences, Los Angeles was by far the leading death penalty county in the nation last year. L.A. sentenced more people to death in 2009 than the entire state of Texas. Meanwhile, Harris County, Texas, long the death penalty capital of the country, had zero death sentences last year.

Even more disturbing, the new faces on death row are more likely to be Latino than before. Latinos comprised a staggering 50 percent of new death sentences in California in 2007, 38 percent in 2008, and 31 percent in 2009. In 2000, Latinos were only 19 percent of the death row population, even when Latinos comprised 33 percent of the people living in California. We don’t know what’s causing the increase in Latinos being sentenced to death — the state doesn’t keep the data needed to answer that question. Given that murder rates are down across all communities in California, particularly in Los Angeles, the increase in Latinos sent to death row raises serious concerns.

So let’s review:

  • The rest of the country has caught on that the death penalty is too expensive and risky.
  • California — especially Los Angeles and a couple other counties — continues to waste resources that we don’t have on a death penalty system that doesn’t work.
  • In the process, more and more Latinos are being sent to California’s death row, and we don’t know why.

As the death row population grows, so do the exorbitant costs of California’s death penalty system. But the money needed to fund the system just isn’t there. In fact, some local officials have taken to cutting costs by denying funding to defense attorneys, even though two out of three death sentences in California are reversed because of ineffective counsel at trial. Of the 700 people now on death row in California, 40 percent lack an attorney needed to handle their state appeal or federal appeals. People now wait more than 10 years on death row for an attorney. Meanwhile, memories fade, evidence is lost, and the risk that an innocent person will be executed grows.

California is on track to spend $1 billion on the death penalty in the next five years. For all the money we spend on the death penalty in California, only 1 out of 100 people sentenced to death has actually been executed during the last 30 years. What is the point?

It’s time for California to get with the program. California has a better alternative: permanent imprisonment. Every guilty person sentenced to permanent imprisonment has died in prison or will die in prison. It allows us to punish serious offenders while saving the state $1 billion over five years. These funds could be shifted to local police who now lack the resources needed to solve murders, or to our beleaguered education system. It’s time for California to move forward: the death penalty is a mistake we can’t afford to keep making.

To find out how many people your county has sent to death row, view our interactive map of California death sentences.

(Cross-posted to Open Salon and the California Progress Report.)

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