Californians Pay a High Price for the Death Penalty

It’s no secret that California’s lawmakers have cut public services to the bone in response to the massive drop in state revenues precipitated by the Great Recession. The state, for example, has eliminated affordable child care for tens of thousands of children, cut cash assistance for low-income seniors, and slashed funding for the state’s public universities, triggering steep tuition increases that have strained the budgets of students and their families. What’s less well known is that one major area of state spending has emerged relatively unscathed from recent rounds of budget cuts: the state’s prison system, also known as “corrections.” The CBP in the coming months will take a closer look at corrections spending in California, starting today with the high cost of the state’s death penalty.

Capital punishment vaulted into the headlines recently when a Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review article, co-authored by a federal appellate court judge, estimated that California spends well over $150 million per year to administer what the authors characterized as “the most expensive and least effective death penalty law in the nation.” This estimate is in line with that of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (CCFAJ), which estimated in 2008 that California was spending roughly $140 million per year “to maintain our dysfunctional system” of capital punishment.

Despite this sizable annual spending on the death penalty, California has executed only 13 inmates since 1978. The root cause of this “excessive delay,” according to the CCFAJ, is the state’s failure to hire the number of attorneys needed to expeditiously handle the post-trial reviews to which the state’s 714 death row inmates are entitled. The CCFAJ estimated that California would have to spend roughly $80 million more each year just to reduce the gap between sentencing and execution to the national average of 12 years. Rather than spending more in these tough budget times to speed up executions, SB 490 (Hancock) would place on the November 2012 ballot a proposal to eliminate the death penalty as a sentencing option, making life without the possibility of parole the maximum punishment in California.

Given the deep cuts to vital public services that have been made in recent years, it is clearly absurd to spend more than $150 million per year on a capital punishment system that knowledgeable observers agree is broken. As retired Judge Donald A. McCartin, the “hanging judge of Orange County” and a self-described “right-wing Republican,” puts it: “It’s time to stop playing the killing game. Let’s use the hundreds of millions of dollars we’ll save to protect some of those essential services now threatened with death.”

— Scott Graves

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