Stanford Progressive

A Broken System: California and the Failed Death Penalty Experiment

By Brandon Payette, published October, 2011

This summer, California State Senator Loni Hancock attempted that which is political anathema to most legislators: She submitted legislation that would put the option to abolish the California death penalty on the November 2012 ballot, replacing capital punishment with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Rather than hiding behind the popular “tough on crime” rhetoric that many legislators ride to reelection, Senator Hancock attempted to inject some sense into a debate that has long been dominated by strong emotions.

Unfortunately for Loni Hancock and for California, the political will to abolish the death penalty is simply non-existent in the State Legislature, and the bill was withdrawn for lack of votes. However, this does not mean that there is no hope for the abolition of capital punishment in the near future. Upon learning of the failed legislation, the anti-death penalty group Taxpayers for Justice announced the creation of a voter initiative that would abolish the death penalty and commute all of California’s current death sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The organization is now seeking to gather enough signatures to place capital punishment once again before the people of California.

The initiative focuses on the sky-high costs that California has incurred in order to maintain the death penalty as a sentencing option. According to a study released this summer, a combination of high trial costs, a lengthy appeals process, and incarceration costs for the more than 700 inmates on California’s death row have caused the state to spend well over $4 billion on the death penalty since its reinstatement in 1978. As the system stands today, California spends roughly $184 million a year to keep the death penalty alive, and these costs will continue to rise as California’s death row, already the largest in the nation, continues to expand.

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For all the money that California has spent on the death penalty, one would expect the state to be executing a significant number of murderers. However, unlike the well-oiled machinery of death that operates in states like Texas, the likelihood of a killer actually being put to death in California is extremely low. Among the roughly 80,000 murders committed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977, only 13 death sentences have been carried out, meaning that a murderer in California is nearly three times more likely to die by lightning than by lethal injection.  Even those murderers who are convicted and sentenced to death in California are unlikely to ever see the inside of the lethal injection chamber at San Quentin: less than 1.5% of California death sentences have ended in execution. Far more death row inmates have died of natural causes than have been put to death. For more than 30 years, California has been paying for a farce of a death penalty that in truth is simply an expensive and traumatic life imprisonment. With such a low execution rate, the death penalty cannot possibly serve as the deterrent against murder that it was intended to be.

The high cost of the death penalty in California has come with serious consequences. According to Gil Garcetti, former District Attorney for Los Angeles, 46% of all murders and 56% of all rapes go unsolved in California, in large part because of inadequate funding to investigations. In addition, the California Supreme Court is swamped with automatic death penalty appeals, with new cases added to the backlog faster than the Court can process them. This undue focus on the death penalty obstructs them from ruling on other important matters and saps the resources of the Court’s staff.

Proponents of capital punishment often argue that society owes murder victims and their families retribution against the murderers.  However, California’s capital punishment system in its current condition is incapable of providing swift and sure retribution, instead dragging the victim’s family through years of litigation that almost never ends in an execution. In the process, the death penalty system creates new victims out of the family of the accused, out of death penalty lawyers working on the case, and out of corrections officials who are forced to occasionally operate the state’s machinery of death.

Californians can be kept just as safe from convicted killers by putting them in prison for life with no option for parole, while saving $184 million a year. California has far better alternatives for the money it has spent on this defunct system. It makes more sense to allocate funds to finding and prosecuting killers who still roam free, rather than pursue an expensive and unlikely death penalty against those killers who have already been convicted. Rather than pursuing vengeance in the name of those victims who are already gone, it would be far more prudent to invest resources in reducing the number of future victims by placing more police on the streets and more investigators on murder cases.

While many calls to end the death penalty concern themselves with the simple barbarity and hypocrisy in the concept of killing killers to demonstrate that killing is wrong, this is not one of them. It is difficult to say with conviction that all of the people on California’s death row deserve to live. However, simple facts demonstrate that the death penalty in California is worse than useless: it is a massive waste of scarce public resources that accomplishes none of the legitimate purposes of a modern criminal justice system. If Taxpayers for Justice succeeds in getting their initiative on the ballot, November 2012 could bring the end of this nonsensical system. California voters initiated this costly experiment. It is far past time that California voters be given the option to kill the death penalty.

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