Californians Can Save Millions by Abolishing Capital Punishment, Experts Argue
In November, California voters will have the opportunity to support Proposition 34: The Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement (SAFE) California Act, which would replace the California death penalty with a sentence of life in prison with no chance of a parole (LWOP). One fact has helped the SAFE California Act gain some otherwise reluctant supporters: a sentence of life without the possibility of parole actually costs less than the death penalty. In fact, it costs much less - about 113 million dollars a year less in California.
This information is having an impact all over the country. In April of this year, Connecticut lawmakers voted 86-62 to repeal Connecticut’s death penalty. Their vote cleared the way for Connecticut to be the fifth state in as many years to abolish capital punishment. And Connecticut’s move was neither isolated nor unusual: in 2011, similar repeal measures were on the table not only in California, but also in Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, and the state of Washington.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), told the Los Angeles Times that unbalanced budgets in many states are leading lawmakers to consider jettisoning expensive policies that they may not fully support. Dieter’s conclusion is supported by recent moves towards repealing the death penalty in many economically troubled states, coupled with conclusive studies showing the high price of capital punishment.
Many Americans believe that the death penalty is actually cheaper than a life sentence but in fact a substantial number of reputable studies show exactly the opposite. The Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, for example, published a 184-page report on the cost of executions in California. The authors estimated a price tag of roughly $4 billion dollars spent to execute no more than thirteen criminals. They argued that the expensive capital punishment system was so dysfunctional that most criminals on death row would die of natural causes before their cases were resolved.
In these situations, the total price tag of capital punishment includes all of the costs associated with a life sentence in addition to capital cases’ higher costs before and during the trial. Post-trial proceedings (appeals) also incur great financial costs, but even if appeals were abolished the death penalty would still be more expensive than alternative sentences. This is primarily a result of the special motions and extra time associated with extended conviction and sentencing phases, and higher investigative costs that are above and beyond the primary expenses of pretrial and trial proceedings and incarceration.
There are those who will dismiss the research of Dieter and other activists as ‘partisan’ or ‘liberal.’ Listen, then, to Donald Heller, a drafter of the 1978 Death Penalty Act, which made California’s capital system one of the harshest and most far reaching in the country. In April 2012, he wrote in the New York Times: “The cost of our system of capital punishment is so enormous that any benefit that could be obtained from it—and I now think there’s very little or zero benefit—is so dollar-wasteful that it serves no effective purpose.”
California Republican Ron Briggs, Supervisor of El Dorado County District 4, recently expressed similar views. Although his father, former Senator John Briggs, championed the 1978 death penalty legislation, the younger Briggs recently wrote to the Los Angeles Times expressing his entire family’s support for the SAFE California Act. “The Briggs death penalty law in California simply does not work,” he wrote, arguing that California has “another chance at real justice” through the SAFE Act.
This complete turnaround is not unique to Heller and Briggs, nor is the exorbitant cost of execution exclusive to the state of California. The 2008 Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment found a similarly appalling discrepancy in cost after conducting one of the countries’ most comprehensive studies of a state death penalty system. Their report, collecting data from fourteen individual studies, concluded that murderers who are sentenced to death in Maryland will ultimately cost the state taxpayers three times more than those sentenced to life without parole. This difference amounts to millions of dollars spent to maintain capital punishment. (And of course, as the Loyola study shows, in California the difference is in the billions.) In some states, where offenders are more likely to die in prison than actually be executed, this enormous sum of money is not even spent on the implementation of capital punishment, i.e. actual execution, but simply on the maintenance of capital punishments’ legality.
With these facts in mind, many have pledged support for the SAFE California Act. Those that wish to see an end to the California death penalty include Jeanne Woodford, former Warden of San Quentin state prison who oversaw four executions; John Van de Kamp, former Attorney General of California; the Mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, and California State Senator Loni Hancock. The support of these prominent politicians is bolstered by endorsements from over 400 family members of murder victims and major media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times.
With truly bipartisan support for the measure, the SAFE California Act is one of the most important issues on the ballot this year. On November 6th California voters will determine whether or not to end their state’s experiment with capital punishment, but the impact of Prop 34 may well extend beyond state borders. Voters around the country remain concerned with the economy; the high price of capital punishment may be enough to make California’s anti-death penalty move only a precursor of things to come.
- Susman, Tina. “Connecticut becomes 17th state to repeal death penalty.” Los Angeles Times, 2012 12-April.
- Young, Shannon. “Conn. Lawmakers OK Death Penalty Repeal.” TIME, 2012 12-April.
- DPIC. Recent Legislative Activity. 2012. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/recent-legislative-activity#2012_Legislation (accessed 2012 15-May).
- Castellanos, Dalina. "Fight Against Death Penalty Gains Momentum in States." Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2012.
- Alarcón, Arthur L, and Paula M Mitchell. "Executing the Will Of the Voters? A Roadmap to Mend or End the California Legislature's Multi-billion-dollar Death Penalty Debacle." Loyala Law Review, 2011: 42-224.
- Amnesty International. "Death Penalty Facts." Amnesty International. February 2012. (accessed May 5, 2012).
- The New York Times. "More Evidence Against the Death Penalty." The New York Times, April 12, 2012.
- Walters, Joanna. "A Death Sentence for the Death Penalty?" The Guardian, December 21, 2011.
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