California's Death Penalty: All Cost and No Benefit


While many important issues will be decided this Tuesday, one stands out for its national and historic importance: In California, the future of the death penalty hangs in the balance with Proposition 34. Also known as the SAFE California Act of 2012, Prop 34 will replace the death penalty with life in prison with no possibility of parole.

The fact is, California's death penalty is all cost and no benefit. The latest Field Poll, out Friday, shows that more voters than ever before support replacing the death penalty, and that Prop 34 is leading in the polls. The Field Poll says 45 percent of likely California voters support Prop 34, while 38 percent oppose. Of those who have already voted, a full 48 percent said they voted yes, while 42 percent voted no.

A big reason for the spectacular surge in support is people's awareness that the Golden State is flat broke. Voters now understand that the death penalty is far more expensive than life in prison with no chance of parole. They realize that California has sunk billions of dollars into a broken system -- while most death row inmates die of old age.
The costs come from special housing, special lawyers and special trials imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court to lessen the risk of executing another innocent person. And those costs really add up. According to The Legislative Analyst's Office, a nonpartisan government agency, Prop 34 will save the state $130 million every year. A comprehensive five-year study by Federal Judge Arthur Alarcón (who is pro-death penalty) and Loyola Law Professor Paula Mitchell (who is not) showed the state has spent $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978. They've just updated that report to show that California is on track to spend $5 to $7 billion, over and above the cost of a sentence of life in prison without parole, between now and 2050. Five to seven billion dollars!

It's staggering to realize that with all those billions spent, California has executed only 13 inmates since 1978, at a cost of about $307 million per execution.

But money's not everything. The fact is that the death penalty is not making us any safer. A shocking 46 percent of murders and 56 percent of reported rapes go unsolved in California every year. California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty released a report yesterday showing that underfunded, overburdened crime labs with long backlogs can't process the evidence needed to solve crimes. Prop 34 would direct $100 million of the savings into local law enforcement programs and activities, like DNA testing, fingerprint analysis, and better funding of local crime labs, so we can find the criminals responsible and put them in jail. It's no secret that the best way to prevent crime is to solve it.

California's Prop 34 vote has all the markings of a historic shift away from the death penalty in the United States. Support for undoing this ineffective policy in the nation's largest and most populous state is broad and deep, and includes some surprising voices. Supporters include the lead campaigner for the 1978 death penalty initiative, Ron Briggs, the author of that original law, Don Heller, former LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti and staunch conservative Bill O'Reilly. Jeanne Woodford, a life-long corrections professional who served as Warden of San Quentin and oversaw four executions is the official spokesperson for the initiative. The Sacramento Bee even reversed its 155-year support for the death penalty to endorse YES on 34, joining 47 major newspapers from across the state.

The vote in California will be felt far and wide. Our state has the dubious distinction of housing nearly one-quarter of the nation's death row inmates and the most expensive death row in the nation. Tragically, California leads the nation in wrongful convictions at 123, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. So if any state could make another fatal mistake, it's this one. Passing Prop 34 will ensure that doesn't happen.

What's clear is that the death penalty is broken beyond repair, and it's time to replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. We support Prop 34 -- and we encourage California voters to get the facts and vote YES on 34 on Tuesday.

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