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Editorial

Death row's delays

California should take a cue from other states that have dealt with the issue of capital punishment: Just abolish it.

May 05, 2011

Last year, California added 28 inmates to the state's death row, eight of whom were sentenced in Los Angeles County. They aren't in much danger of an early demise, however, thanks largely to legal delays, including a decision Tuesday by state officials not to pursue executions in 2011. The seemingly never-ending court battles mean that convicts in capital cases are far more likely to die of natural causes than by lethal injection. But that won't stop them from costing taxpayers an estimated three times more than other inmates.

Not for the first time, this gives us cause to wonder what good the death penalty in California is doing. Gov. Jerry Brown also personally opposes death sentences, though he appears to lack the courage of his capital convictions. The solution is in plain sight and has been pursued successfully by other states, including Illinois earlier this year: Abolish capital punishment.

The budget-minded Brown last week canceled plans to build a new death row at San Quentin State Prison, noting that it was hard to justify spending $356 million on housing for convicted murderers while services for children, the disabled and seniors were being slashed to the bone. Fair enough. But deferring the problem won't make it go away, as California lawmakers discovered after their practice of ignoring a worsening prison overcrowding crisis was finally ended when federal judges declared the state guilty of unconstitutionally cruel punishment. Similarly, the state can't go on adding to the death row population indefinitely while failing to address San Quentin's severe capacity and design problems.

There are 713 inmates on death row, yet the state hasn't executed anyone since 2006 (29 have died of natural causes since then). Confronted with similar costs and delays, along with evidence that some death row inmates had been wrongfully convicted, four states have abolished the death penalty since 2007. In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn dealt with existing death row inmates by commuting their sentences to life without parole, an elegant solution that would end California's legal and budgetary problems at a stroke.

California lawmakers aren't inclined to follow Illinois' lead, and Brown has shown no interest in pushing them. He says this is because he respects the will of the majority, which has shown strong support for the death penalty in the past. But Brown might want to consult more recent polls. A 2010 Field poll showed that although 70% of the state's voters favor capital punishment, a slight majority said that if given a choice between imposing a sentence of death or life without parole in first-degree murder cases, they'd choose the latter. Replacing capital punishment with life imprisonment isn't necessarily a political death sentence.

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