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Opinion: California can’t afford the death penalty

Eliminating capital punishment, which is rarely carried out anyhow, would save the state $125 million a year.

There are many reasons why people object to the death penalty. Opponents point to the ever-present risk of wrongful conviction. They note that there’s bias against people of color and low-income defendants, as well as geographic disproportionality in its administration. And there’s the fact that most other civilized societies around the world have concluded that it should be abolished.

But these days, there’s also a strong economic argument for doing away with capital punishment. With California facing its most severe fiscal crisis in recent memory — with draconian cuts about to be imposed from Sacramento that will affect every resident of the state — it would be crazy not to consider the fact that it will add as much as $1 billion over the next five years simply to keep the death penalty on the books.

Here’s the math.

Today, California has 678 offenders on death row, more than any other state. Yet, in the last 30 years, we’ve had only 13 executions. With 20 more people sentenced to death each year — and an average wait of 25 years from sentencing to execution — the number of inmates on death row is continuing to climb.

Now consider what capital punishment costs. According to the final report of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, which I chaired from 2006 to 2008, the cost of a murder trial goes up by about half a million dollars if prosecutors seek the death penalty. Confinement on death row (with all the attendant security requirements) adds $90,000 per inmate per year to the normal cost of incarceration. Appeals and habeas corpus proceedings add tens of thousands more. In all, it costs $125 million a year more to prosecute and defend death penalty cases and to keep inmates on death row than it would simply to put all those people in prison for life without parole.

On top of that $125-million extra cost per year, California is also facing the need to build a new death house for death penalty inmates at an estimated cost of $400 million.

The commission, whose members were evenly divided between opponents and proponents of the death penalty, agreed that the present system is, as state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George has said, “dysfunctional,” and it unanimously recommended a series of steps to rectify the most serious flaws in the system. We recommended increased staffing in a number of areas, including a 33% increase in the staff of California state public defenders to handle direct appeals and a 500% increase in the California Habeas Corpus Resources Center to take on habeas corpus filings at a much earlier time than is now the case. We also called for a commensurate increase in the staffing of the attorney general’s office to handle the increased caseload.

These staffing increases would cost $95 million more per year. They would bring the time needed to administer California’s death penalty down to about 12 1/2 years, near the national average.

Our report was issued almost a year ago, on June 30, 2008. Since that time, there has been no movement in Sacramento to seek implementation of our proposed reforms. They appear to be in quicksand. And with the fiscal crisis confronting the state, they look to be locked in granite.

So let me make another recommendation. I think it’s time to do away with the death penalty in California.

The system simply isn’t working. No one is being executed; there’s been a moratorium on executions for three years because of legal challenges. Yet death penalty cases are being prosecuted at great expense. We have a lengthy appeals process, death house overcrowding as offenders pile up and millions of dollars being wasted on a system that does not do what it is supposed to do.

It’s time to convert the sentences of those now on death row to life without parole. Doing so would incapacitate some of the worst of the worst for their natural lives, and at the same time ensure that a person wrongfully convicted will not be executed. And it would save $125 million each year.

A courageous governor facing an unprecedented budget crisis would take this step and use the taxpayer money saved to preserve some of the vital services now on the chopping block.