How to Save $$ Executing Killers

JUNE 22, 2011

State Sen. Lori Hancock, D-Berkeley, said this week that she plans to introduce legislation that would shutter California’s death row. She argues that capital punishment has proven “an expensive failure” and proposes that the sentences of inmates currently facing a date with the executioner be converted to life without parole.

Hancock timed her announcement to coincide with the release of a report, co-authored by U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell, which misleadingly suggests that the death penalty costs the state’s taxpayers a whopping $308 million per execution.

Multiplying that figure times the 714 state inmates currently awaiting lethal injection, it amounts to nearly $220 billion to clear out death row. That has led some death penalty foes, masquerading as fiscal conservatives, to suggest that California could do much to solve its continuing budget woes by adopting Hancock’s legislation.

Well, if it really were true that it costs the state $308 million every time it carries out a death sentence, as the report by Alarcon and Mitchell implies, even the 70 percent of California residents who support capital punishment would be inclined to back Hancock’s legislation.

But the state’s actual execution of convicted murderers is relatively inexpensive. Clinically speaking, all they do is strap an inmate to a gurney and inject him with a lethal combination drugs. The cost for the drugs, the medical technicians administering the lethal injection and the other attending prison personnel is much closer to $3,000 than $308 million.

Legal Process

What has cost the state’s taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars since 1978, when California reinstated the death penalty, is the labyrinthine legal process of actually carrying out an execution.

Indeed, the state’s anti-death penalty minority has thoroughly corrupted the process using every conceivable delaying tactic to prevent the state’s convicted killers from getting what’s coming to them.

That’s why only 13 death row inmates have been executed since 1978. Dividing 13 into the estimated $4 billion the state has spent over the past 33 years to maintain its death row brings the $308 million per execution figure Alarcon and Mitchell ginned up.

That’s why the murderer next in line for lethal injection — Alfred Greenwood Tweedle, who raped and strangled to death a 15-year old Riverside girl — has spent more than 20 years waiting for his death sentence to be carried out.

It’s not the juries that have sent murderers like Tweedle to death row that have cost the state the hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s the abolitionist lawyers who file appeal after specious appeal to nullify the juries’ death sentences.

It’s the activist judges — state and federal — that refuse to accept that capital punishment is the will of the people of California, and that its constitutionally has been upheld by the highest court in the land.

Real Reform

The way to end that mockery of justice is not to abolish the death penalty in California, but to reform the state’s dysfunctional death penalty appeals process.

In fact, such a reform was proposed three years ago by the state Supreme Court. It recommended a state constitutional amendment permitting death penalty appeals to be heard by state appeals courts, rather than the current requirement that all appeals be heard exclusively by the state’s highest court.

Because there would be a considerably larger pool of jurists working on capital cases — whereas, now, that work falls entirely on the state Supreme Court’s seven justices — the cases “could be heard more quickly and be completed sooner,” former Chief Justice Ronald George explained, “even with subsequent Supreme Court review.”

Justice for the state’s death row population would be more swiftly and surely served. And Sen. Hancock and other death penalty foes could no longer claim that is an expensive failure.

— Joseph Perkins



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