Death Penalty: Tough on the Taxpayer

(This op-ed is from Sen. Loni Hancock about her work to end California’s death penalty.   – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

by Senator Loni Hancock

As a legislator, I take my responsibility to make wise budget choices seriously, especially as our state faces a deepening fiscal crisis. This year, as in several recent years, the budget is an exercise in attempting to minimize cuts to vital services like schools and public safety. That means that I am always looking for places to cut risk and waste. And that is why I introduced SB 490 to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. SB 490 is being heard in the Assembly Public Safety Committee this Thursday (7/7) morning.

Since 1978, California has spent about $4 billion dollars on death penalty costs and has executed 13 people, according to a new study. That’s $308 million per condemned inmate.  By 2030, when the population of San Quentin’s death row is projected to reach 1,000, the tab for maintaining the death penalty will reach $9 billion.

We’re not being tough on crime: we’re being tough on the taxpayer.

Those stunning figures come from a study released earlier this week by U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School Professor Paula M. Mitchell. Their neutral analysis (she is opposed to the death penalty, he is not) confirmed similar findings from advocacy groups including the ACLU of Northern California and Death Penalty Focus, which estimate the state could save $1 Billion every five years by replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole.

It might seem counterintuitive that sentencing people to death is more costly than life in prison without parole. However, death penalty cases require extra attention and review, they involve taxpayer-funded appeals, and they demand heightened security and lengthy capital trials. To house these 714 death row inmates and put them through the lengthy process instead of converting their sentences to life without parole, costs Californian taxpayers $184 million every year. A death penalty trial can cost as much as 20 times more than sentencing an inmate to life without parole. Death row inmates are exempt from work and get single-cell housing. It is more likely for a death row prisoner in California to die of illness or old age than execution.

That is an unconscionable investment in a failed policy for a handful of people. As a lawmaker I cannot justify this kind of expense. Not when we are asking families to tighten their belts and to accept deep cuts to police on the street and public education for their children.  And certainly not with the knowledge that, today, nearly half of all murders in California go unsolved.

Imagine if we were to use those funds to make our communities safer. How many more officers would $4 billion put on the streets? What if we paid cops and investigators who protect all of us? How many more students could we send to college on full scholarship if even just $1 billion of the $4 billion saved, were put towards funding public education?

My bill would also eliminate the risk of wrongful execution. At least 138 people across the country have been released from death row after new evidence came to light, proving they were wrongfully charged.

Some suggest that public support for the death penalty is strong in California.  However, as in many areas of life, a new consensus is emerging. A 2011 poll released by David Binder Research found that 63% of likely California voters would support replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment without the chance of parole. The study showed that this is not a partisan issue. A majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents would vote to convert all death row sentences to life without the possibility of parole. It seems that voters have had enough.

Now is the time. Eliminating the death penalty will save the state hundreds of millions of dollars every year and is the right thing to do. Our state is in desperate need of these savings. This failed policy is a drain on Californian taxpayers, a false promise to victims’ families and puts us all at risk. Governor Brown and my fellow California legislators need to listen to the voters and reassess the excessive funds that are dedicated to this broken and dysfunctional system.

Senator Loni Hancock

California District 9