Tag Archives: Cut This

$4 Billion Since 1978 – Time to Cut California’s Death Penalty

Guest blog by James Clark, ACLU of Southern California 

New data in a study to be released next week on California’s death penalty has revealed that the price tag for death is even higher than we thought: $4 billion since 1978. Put another way, we spend $184 million more per year for death penalty inmates than we do on those sentenced to life without the chance of parole. All told, California is on track to spend $1 billion on the death penalty over the next five years.

The new estimate is the result of a three-year comprehensive examination of state, federal, and local expenditures on California’s death penalty by Arthur Alarcón, a federal judge on the 9th Circuit, and Paula Mitchell, a Loyola Law School professor. Mercury News called the study “highly credible” and that it made the case for replacing the death penalty “nearly indisputable.” Not that anyone was disputing the wasteful spending before – except for that guy who comments on all my blogs. By now, most folks get that the death penalty wastes hundreds of millions of our dwindling state dollars. Only now we know that it actually wastes billions.

$4 billion and what did that get us? A grand total of 13 executions. That’s over $300 million per execution above the cost of life without parole.

Meanwhile, nearly half of all murders in California go unsolved. How many dangerous individuals could we have locked up permanently and taken off our streets over the last 33 years if we hadn’t executed those 13 people? How many children and families could have accessed the education and health services they needed, or how many students could have had the opportunity to attend college?

Looking ahead, the study predicts another $9 billion will be spent by 2030. Unless of course Gov. Brown just cuts the death penalty spending already – and it really is that easy.

The Governor has the authority to convert all 714 of California’s death sentences to life without the possibility of parole, saving California $1 billion over five years without releasing a single prisoner. Grassroots organizations and thousands of individuals around the state have been asking the Governor to do just that since the day he took office, and these new figures are giving the idea more traction with those looking for budget fixes, like CNNMoney.

And here’s the kicker: California voters agree. Polls as recent as April 2011 show that Californians support cutting the death penalty [PDF]. A full 63% of likely voters favor the governor converting all existing death sentences to life without parole, with the requirement that prisoners work and pay restitution into the Victims’ Compensation Fund (death row inmates are not currently required to work). That support spans party and geographic lines – majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all across the state agree. It’s hard not to when there are four billion reasons.

The case is closed on the death penalty. There’s no question that California’s death penalty is dysfunctional and that the only thing it’s killing is our economy. The experts know it, the voters know it, and our elected leaders need to acknowledge it. Tell Jerry Brown to give up the charade of the death penalty and to give back the hundreds of millions of dollars law enforcement and education leaders need to actually keep our families safe.


As the California Democratic Party Convention Begins, What of the Death Penalty?

Well, the California Democratic Party Convention is set to begin in a few hours, and I am just shoving the last of my items into my bag as I get ready to head to Sacramento.  For the most part, the convention will be fairly unified.  Democrats are thankful for their electoral success in 2010’s elections, but what issues might arise?  Well, there’s always the budget, but there is one other issue rearing its head as we head into it.

A new David Binder Research poll is showing that a strong majority of voters now supports converting all of our death penalty sentences to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP):

A recent statewide survey of 800 high propensity voters conducted by David Binder Research showed a strong  63% support for converting all current death row sentences to life imprisonment without any possibility of parole  in order to save the state $1 billion dollars in five years, where the money saved would be required to pay for  public education and law enforcement. Notably, support for this idea to convert all of the death row sentences to save the state a billion dollars over five years receives support from all political parties and from across all regions of the state. This idea appears to be the type of solution voters are looking for politicians to develop, but this idea in particular is one that political figures have so far overlooked.  

This is likely to come up throughout the convention, but not likely from the podium.  However, grassroots support for a signal of agreement with this poll has been bouncing around over the last few days and weeks. I’m interested to see where the question goes from here.

I’ll be focusing much of my communications on Twitter, check my Twitter feed here.

UPDATE: On a somewhat related note, Governor Brown is actually letting the parole board do its job rather than what Govs. Davis and Schwarzenegger did by blocking pretty much every parole.  We can’t really begin to address the prison mess without prioritizing for dangers criminals.

Illinois Ends the Death Penalty-a Wake-up Call for California

The end of Illinois’ death penalty comes at a time when more and more people express the view that the death penalty is ineffective, costly, and unjust. A slew of recent editorials and opinion pieces have highlighted the enormous problems with the death penalty in California in particular.  As these editorials and op eds show, it is time for California to cut this: the death penalty.

An editorial recently published in The San Jose Mercury, Pasadena Star News, Long Beach Telegram, and other papers, calls on Governor Brown to convert all death sentences to life imprisonment without any possibility of parole to the death penalty, to save the state $1 billion over the next five years. As these editorials point out, the money now wasted on the death penalty could be better spent to fund education and invest in public safety. Yet, at a time of financial crisis, the Governor and lawmakers are instead choosing to cut public safety, as well as healthcare and education, while remaining on track to spend $1 billion on the death penalty in five years.  

“This,” the editorial says, “is fiscal insanity.”

Concerns about the number of innocent people sentenced to death also continue to grow. Many editorials praising Illinois for ending the death penalty, including one by the Register Guard of Oregon, noted that at least 20 people had been wrongly sentenced to death in that state alone.  A recent editorial in the LA Times observes that many other states, including California, have also mistakenly sentenced innocent men and women to death.  An editorial published in the Vallejo Times-Herald elaborates:

In just the five states that have abolished capital punishment in the last quarter century, 27 innocent lives were spared when it was learned they had been wrongly convicted. There's no way to determine how many were wrongly killed by the state.

More disturbing is that in the 34 states that still have the death penalty, more than 100 Death Row inmates have been freed. …

DNA, while an effective exoneration tool, is not helpful in many cases where such evidence plays no role. We don't know how many condemned inmates who proclaim their innocence actually are, but the system's inherent flaws indicate the strong possibility they exist. Any system that permits even one innocent man to die should be abolished.

California’s death penalty is also a hollow promise to victims. Because we don’t want to execute an innocent person, courts carefully review each death sentence, resulting in a long and cumbersome process that takes, on average, 25 years. As a result, the family members of murder victims are dragged through decades of painful court proceedings that, 99% of the time, do not end in an execution. Recently, the LA Times published an editorial written by retired Superior Court Judge Donald McCartin.  McCartin, who presided over 10 murder cases in which he sentenced someone to die, said:

I am deeply angered by the fact that our system of laws has become so complex and convoluted that it makes mockery of decisions I once believed promised resolution for the family members of victims.

The only way to end the charade, McCartin concluded, is to end the death penalty:

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. Let's stop asking people like me to lie to those victim's family members.

Aqeela Sherrills, whose son was murdered, and Judy Kerr, whose brother was murdered, echoed these sentiments in recent op eds. Noting that the state has cut funding for victims services, while maintaining spending on the death penalty, Kerr said:

There must be room for justice for victims in our budget. The death penalty is not where we will find it. Real justice comes from protecting each other and helping victims rebuild their lives after the devastating loss of a loved one. Instead of cutting funding for victims' services, cut this: the death penalty.

Illinois rightly concluded that the death penalty cannot be fixed but must be replaced with life without the possibility of parole, and redirected the money that had been wasted on the death penalty to victims’ services and law enforcement.  Ask Governor Brown to do the same: cut the death penalty today.
Natasha Minsker is death penalty policy director for the ACLU of Northern California.

Budgeting Life and Death

We have no budget, no money for child care centers and college students, and no hope that these problems will be solved anytime soon. But take heart California, what we do have is a state-of-the-art death chamber. And soon we will have the best and brightest death row housing facility. Can anyone in Sacramento say “priorities”?

On September 22, “Day 83 Without a Budget,” the Governor revealed a brand new execution chamber. This was his latest leap into the budgetary black hole that is the death penalty. While state employees have been furloughed, the inmates at San Quentin have been hard at work building the new facility to replace the rigged-up gas chamber they had been using. After a judge ruled it was too small and poorly lit to put people to death without risk of serious error, the new one boasts such improvements as a room with lights.

Its price-tag? A mere $853,000.

 A few weeks earlier, back on “Day 41 Without a Budget,” the Governor “borrowed” $64 million from the state’s general fund, to be paid out of our still non-existent state budget. That money will be used to begin construction of the new death row housing facility, which in the end will cost $400 million to build. That breaks down to about a half a million dollars per cell. The facility is being designed to hold 1,400 inmates—twice the number of people currently on death row. That’s because the government knows that almost everyone sentenced to death in California will not actually die in the shiny new execution chamber. In fact, almost all will die of natural causes, just like they do now.

The Attorney General’s office claims we will use San Quentin’s brand new, well-lit execution facility next week, on “Day 91 Without a Budget,” to execute Albert Brown. But with three on-going legal challenges to the lethal injection procedures, legal experts doubt the execution will actually take place.

Mr. Brown has been on death row for 28 years. Based on averages of the costs of death penalty trials, state-level appeals, and housing in San Quentin, the ACLU estimates his case has cost California $4,788,750 over and above the cost that would have been incurred if Mr. Brown was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Many people hear that and reason we could reduce the cost by decreasing the time spent on death row – after all, if he wasn’t on death row for 28 years, he couldn’t have racked up that $4 million dollar bill, right? Unfortunately not. In fact the reverse is true: speeding up the system would only cost more money. The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice concluded we would need to pay at least $95 million more per year to speed up the death penalty and increase its efficiency. That finding was agreed upon unanimously, by death penalty advocates and opponents alike.

Why? Because the bottle-neck in death penalty cases isn’t too many appeals or sympathy for death row inmates, it’s the same thing that bottle-necks every other bureaucratic enterprise on earth: money. Currently, a person sentenced to death waits an average of five years before an attorney is even appointed for appeal and 10 years before the first appeal is actually heard in court. Faster appointments and hearings can only be accomplished by hiring more attorneys and court staff. In short, by spending more money.

While state employees prepare for an execution in between their furlough days, millions of dollars are sucked into California’s machinery of death. Every state program is facing drastic budget cuts, from education to health care to law enforcement, but we can still scrape together more than $800,000 for a state-of-the-art, well-lit killing chamber and remain on track to spend $1 billion on the death penalty in the next five years.

 A safe and cost-effective alternative exists that can still salvage California from these absurd priorities. By cutting the death penalty and converting the sentences of more than 700 death row inmates to life without parole with work and restitution to the victims, we can save $1 billion in five years without releasing a single prisoner. Permanent imprisonment is swift and certain justice that keeps the public safe without sucking the budget dry.