Commentary: Death penalty is costly, inefficient

Californians deserve swift, certain and cost-effective justice. This is particularly true when it comes to serious crimes like murder, when protecting the public and helping victims heal must be our top priorities. Thirty years of experience in California has proven that permanent imprisonment works to achieve these goals. Meanwhile, the death penalty does not, though it costs millions more. The overwhelming majority of Californians understand this. Now it’s time for elected officials in Sacramento to catch up.

Permanent imprisonment—also called life without the possibility of parole—means exactly what it says. Every person sentenced to permanent imprisonment will die in prison. Public records of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the Board of Parole confirm that every person sentenced to permanent imprisonment whose sentence was affirmed on appeal remains in prison or has already died in prison. The only people ever released after being sentenced to permanent imprisonment in California were in fact innocent of the crimes they were convicted of.


Permanent imprisonment is also swift punishment. Defendants sentenced to permanent imprisonment are entitled to only one appeal, usually concluded within 18 months. According to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (CCFAJ), a bipartisan panel of criminal justice experts, it now takes the courts 25 years to review a death penalty case in California. Permanent imprisonment allows the families of murder victims to begin healing from their tragic loss and move on. The death penalty, on the other hand, traps grieving families in decades of mandatory appeals.


It’s easy to hear that fact and say “speed up the system;” but actually finding a way to make the system move more quickly without increasing the chance that we execute an innocent person is nearly impossible to do. The CCFAJ tried to find a solution to this problem. It concluded that California remains at risk of executing an innocent person. The Commission recommended a series of reforms to reduce the number of wrongful convictions in our state. The Legislature passed the most urgently needed of these reforms three times, and three times the Governor vetoed them.


The Commission did find one way for California to make the death penalty system move more quickly: spend more money. The Commission unanimously concluded that we would need to spend $95 million more each year if we want to increase the pace at which courts process death penalty cases.


Now consider that we are already spending $137 million each year on the death penalty system in California. If we keep the death penalty, we will also need to spend at least $400 million to build a new housing facility at death row.


Total price tag: $1 billion over the next five years.


In contrast, the CCFAJ said that if we replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, the cost would be only $11 million a year.


Many people hear these figures and scratch their heads in disbelief: how can it cost so much money to execute people? As the US Supreme Court said long ago, death is different.


If you want to invoke the power of the state and the authority of the judicial system to take a human life, safeguards must be in place to ensure that we do not make a mistake. We must ensure that we do not execute people simply because they are poor. And we must ensure that the death penalty does not become a tool of politics like it is in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.


Simply put, these safeguards require paying more money for more attorneys, investigators, and judges to spend more time on death penalty cases. The cost-effective alternative that protects public safety and delivers swift justice is life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.


As more people learn about the enormous costs of the death penalty and remaining risk of executing an innocent person, attitudes have shifted. A new survey by a professor at UC Santa Cruz reveals that when California voters are offered the alternative of permanent imprisonment with the requirement that the prisoner work and provide restitution to the victims, more than two thirds prefer this sentence.


Faced with the choice of cutting funding for public safety programs like police and domestic violence shelters, or cutting funds for life sustaining programs like AIDS treatment, or cutting education even more, the choice that the vast majority of Californians would make is clear: replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment saving the state $1 billion over five years.

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