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Repeal the death penalty

Each execution costs taxpayers $308 million, a colossal waste.

July 14, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison is shown. A condemned man in California is more likely to die of old age than an execution. Although 13 have been executed, 78 have died of natural or other causes.
The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison is shown. A condemned… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

From Sacramento — Waste, fraud and abuse — also known as California's death penalty.

It's a colossal waste of money for arguably the state's most inefficient program.

California has spent an estimated $4 billion to administer capital punishment over the past 33 years and executed only 13 people. That's about $308 million per execution.

It's a shameless fraud on the public. Californians have consistently supported the death penalty and been led to believe that it exists. It really doesn't.

We just stack up more and more killers on death row. There's now a backlog of 714.

It's an abuse of California resources — property and personnel, public and private.

San Quentin's death row occupies valuable land on San Francisco Bay that is better suited for economic development. Meanwhile, far too many brainy lawyers and academicians test their wits on death penalty issues rather than productively debating projects and policies needed to improve the state.

Don't misread me. You won't find any arguments here about the death penalty being unfair, immoral or barbaric. I don't buy it.

Far as I'm concerned, these characters — once proven guilty beyond a shadow of doubt — should be immediately removed from our planet. Some creeps should be appropriately tortured first.

But the issue here is not about the merits of the death penalty. It's about inefficiencies and priorities. As we raise university tuitions out of sight, whack the poor and lay off cops, do we really want to be spending $308 million to snuff out one individual?

What California has been doing for the past 33 years is insane: piling murderers into death row with little prospect of executing them.

There the condemned get their own single cells. They have access to free lawyers and personal TVs.

A recent extensive study of California's death penalty cited the case of a white supremacist who killed a fellow gang member. He asked his attorney to get him sentenced to death, researchers reported, "because, as his attorney explained, 'living conditions at San Quentin prison's death row will be better than if he serves a life term at Pelican Bay.'"

The report added: "By any measure, it is beyond dispute that 'the strongest, most effective death penalty law in the nation' that was promised to California voters in 1978 has not been realized. Instead, California has the most expensive and least effective death penalty law in the nation."

The study was conducted by U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell. Alarcon, who long ago served as Gov. Pat Brown's chief advisor on death penalty cases, does not oppose capital punishment. Mitchell, Alarcon's longtime law clerk, does oppose it.

Some of their findings:

Death row prisoners cost $184 million more per year than if they had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

The average lag between conviction and execution is more than 25 years. There hasn't been an execution since 2006, and none is scheduled as attorneys battle over the state's proposed new lethal injection procedures.

A condemned man in California is more likely to die of old age than an execution. Although 13 have been executed, 78 have died of natural or other causes.

The long delays are largely because there's a shortage of death penalty-qualified attorneys to handle appeals.

Fully implementing California's death penalty would cost an extra $85 million annually. Or, the state could reduce the number of eligible crimes and save perhaps $55 million. Third option: abolish the penalty completely and pocket about $1 billion over five or six years.

"Unless California voters want to tolerate the continued waste of billions of tax dollars on the state's now-defunct death penalty system," the report concludes, "they must either demand meaningful reforms…or, if they do not want to be taxed to fund the needed reforms, they must recognize that the only alternative is to abolish the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole."

Ah, the dreaded "T" word.

Republicans used to be the crime-fighting party. Now they're Johnny one-notes about lower taxes. So we can't expect them to help raise money to resurrect capital punishment in California.

"We don't think you can put a price on justice," says Cory Salzillo, legislative director for the California District Attorneys Assn. "If this is a penalty society wants — and every poll shows clearly that it is — there's a responsibility to pay for it."

Michael Rushford, president of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, argues that the study offered "false choices." There are plenty of qualified attorneys in California, he contends. More should be made eligible for capital cases. And the entire appeals process should be placed on a fast track.

But former U.S. Atty. Don Heller, who wrote the California death penalty law 33 years ago, said he has turned against capital punishment, believing it is too costly and is administered unfairly and too slowly..

Anyway, he says, "some of these guys should be left out in the general prison population. Then someone can take capital punishment into their own hands, particularly with a baby rapist."

State Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) is pushing a bill to abolish the death penalty and substitute life in prison without parole.

The measure would go to the ballot if it passed the Legislature, which seems doubtful.

Too many politicians are afraid of being judged soft on crime.

"Would people rather have teachers in the classrooms, police on the street or death penalty lawyers in court?" she asks.

Hancock and her bill make sense.

California doesn't punish depraved killers. It punishes the innocent: school kids, university students, the elderly poor, the taxpayers.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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