The lethal-injection chamber at San Quentin State Prison in California. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Abolitionists have gained momentum in their campaign to ask California voters to replace the death penalty with lifelong imprisonment, winning over influential prosecutors, police chiefs and other law enforcement leaders who have turned against the ultimate punishment as a failure on all fronts.
But one key forum has yet to join the battle against spending billions on a dysfunctional death row: the California Legislature. On Thursday, backers of a bill that would ask voters to renounce capital punishment withdrew the legislation when it became apparent it was stalled.
Taxpayers for Justice, a coalition of death penalty foes galvanized by the spiraling costs of keeping execution as a sentencing option, immediately announced a citizens initiative aimed for the November 2012 ballot.
Civil rights groups have been attempting to call attention to the costs of the death penalty for years. That message gained traction in June with the release of a comprehensive study by a federal judge and a law professor showing that taxpayers have spent $4 billion over the last three decades to carry out only 13 executions.
The authors, U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell, testified before the Senate Public Safety Committee earlier this week that the death penalty has become "a multibillion-dollar debacle."
Their findings show that taxpayers spend an extra $184 million each year to keep death row inmates fed, guarded and represented by lawyers, money that would be better spent putting cops on the street and investigators on the 46% of murder cases that go unsolved, said Jeanne Woodford, the former San Quentin State Prison warden now heading Death Penalty Focus.
Gov. Jerry Brown in April scrapped plans to build a new $356-million death row, saying scarce budget funds were better spent on children and the elderly than on prisoners.
Sensing opportunity to erode support for capital punishment with the fiscal argument, Taxpayers for Justice conscripted more than 100 law enforcement leaders in their campaign for replacement of death sentences with life without the possibility of parole. While a few counties already have renounced capital prosecutions for ethical or expense reasons, a statewide initiative would need to be passed by voters for the death penalty to be eliminated as an option.
Among the recruits to the anti-death-penalty forces is former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti. Dozens of capital murder cases were brought to trial during his 32 years in the nation's biggest prosecution office.
"My frustration is more about the fact that the death penalty does not serve any useful purpose and it's very expensive," said Garcetti. "Most people understand and appreciate that the death penalty has never proven to be a deterrent. It is simply retribution for family and friends of the murdered individual."
There are 714 people on California's death row, but only seven of them have exhausted all appeals and would be eligible for execution once legal challenges to the state's lethal injection procedures are concluded. The last execution in the state was nearly six years ago, and none are expected in the near future because of new lawsuits questioning the origin and safety of one of the lethal-injection drugs.