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It's time to dump California's death penalty by passing Prop. 34

The state's death penalty already effectively has been abolished. The question now is whether we should keep throwing away tax money on a broken system.

September 12, 2012|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Lt. Sam Robinson, press information officer, and others are reflected at the center of the window of the lethal injection chamber at San Quentin in 2010.
Lt. Sam Robinson, press information officer, and others are reflected… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — Officially, Proposition 34 is about whether to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison. But that's not the pertinent question.

The death penalty already effectively has been abolished in California. Capital punishment exists only in fantasyland. Condemned killers essentially have been living out their natural lives behind bars.

The relevant question is whether we should keep pouring tax money down a rat hole, feeding a broken system that shows no signs of ever being fixed.

California has executed only 13 people in the last 34 years, and none since 2006. A study last year found that the state had spent $4 billion to administer capital punishment since 1978. That's about $308 million per execution.

So for me, Prop. 34 is not about the merits of capital punishment. It's about whether we should keep paying extravagantly for something we're not getting.

The November ballot measure is relatively simple compared to most other initiatives. It would repeal California's death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

It would apply retroactively to the 729 convicted killers already sentenced to death. They and future murderers would be tossed into the general prison population and treated like other convicts — double-bunked and required to work.

Current death row inmates at San Quentin are relatively coddled — in their own private cells with personal TVs and extensive access to the recreation yard.

"They're allowed to go to the exercise yard seven days a week, up to six hours a day, or they can lay in their cell and watch TV seven days a week if they want," says Jeanne Woodford, a former San Quentin warden and ex-director of the state corrections department. She's a leading proponent of Prop. 34.

"They don't work because there's no work for death row inmates. So they're not required to pay restitution to victims' families." They would be under Prop. 34.

The legislative analyst estimates that state and county governments ultimately would save about $130 million annually by repealing the death penalty.

Over an initial four-year span, $100 million would be doled out to local law enforcement agencies to help solve homicide and sex crimes.

"In California on average each year," Woodford says, "46% of murders and 56% of reported rapes go unsolved. The best way to prevent crime is to solve it. The more solved crimes, the lower the crime rate. That's really the deterrent to crime."

Don't read me wrong. You won't see any arguments here about the death penalty being immoral, unfair or barbaric. I don't buy it. These creeps — once proven guilty beyond a shadow of doubt — should be removed from our planet ASAP.

It's just that a condemned man in California is far more likely to die of old age than execution. In all, 57 have died of natural causes and 21 from suicide.

The death penalty isn't a deterrent? Anyone executed will never kill again. Moreover, it's deserved punishment. Any mercy should be up to the depraved killer's God.

We might execute an innocent man? That may have occurred in other states, but no one can point to it ever happening in California in modern times.

Former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, however, worries about the innocence question. As a prosecutor, he sent dozens to death row. With 729 currently housed on the row, "I just have to believe that there are at least a couple who are factually innocent," he says. "We're all human beings. We make mistakes."

Garcetti strongly supports Prop. 34, but principally because of the wasted money issue.

"I'm not absolutely opposed morally to the death penalty," he says, "but I've concluded that in California it serves no useful purpose, it doesn't work and it's not fixable. The costs are obscene.

"We're laying off teachers and firefighters and police officers. Spending $184 million more per year on the death penalty doesn't make sense."

The $184-million figure comes from a study conducted last year by U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell. They figured that was the annual cost of housing death row prisoners over what it would be if they had been sentenced to life in prison.

They also estimated that fully implementing the death penalty, chiefly by hiring more judges and attorneys, would cost an extra $85 million annually.

Opponents of Prop. 34 — district attorneys, sheriffs, police chiefs, victims' rights groups — dispute those figures but don't offer their own.

They argue that executions could be expedited if the state moved quickly to a one-drug process for lethal injections. The former three-drug process has been blocked by courts.

Gov. Jerry Brown has directed the state corrections department to develop a one-drug method. But don't expect him to stay on top of it and push. For Brown, repeal of the death penalty has been a lifelong cause.

State Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris also is a staunch death penalty opponent, although, like Brown, she pledges to carry out the law.

Well, for whatever reasons — mainly the lethal injection flap and prolonged court appeals — it's not being carried out.

"The Prop. 34 proponents' best argument is that nobody is getting executed," asserts Mitch Zak, campaign strategist for the vastly underfunded opponents. "They don't want anyone to be executed. They've successfully broken the system.

"What you're doing [with Prop. 34] is rewarding them by giving them what they want. But voters are smart enough to know that the death penalty is an appropriate tool for the worst of the worst."

But the tool isn't working. Time to dump it and stop throwing away money.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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