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The Death Penalty


Many and varied are the reasons to end, or at the very least, severely limit the death penalty. We argue its immorality, its discriminatory application, its violation of the cruel and unusual prohibitions in our Constitution. We argue that we are virtually the only nation borne of Western culture that still employs it; it is a barbaric remnant of Old Testament vengeance. It sets us apart from the majority of the international community, creating an inequality in punishments when attempting extradition for a capital offense.

We marshal an impressive array of statistics for these arguments, including a demonstration of its ineffectiveness as a deterrent. The cumulative murder rate in those states without the death penalty is significantly lower than the corresponding rate in those states with the penalty. And finally we can show, with the advent of DNA testing (almost) conclusively, that if we have not as yet executed an innocent person, we most surely have come close to executing one, and just as surely will do so in some future case not susceptible of DNA testing.

And yet the irrational appeal to vengeance, and the atavistic urge to violence, is so deep within our reptilian brains, that demagogic politicians need only raise the thrill of the death penalty as a panacea to the complexities of law and order, crime and punishment, to convince millions of voters throughout California and this country to forsake all reason and join the mindless lynch-mob in following these opportunists to the polls.

The vast majority of these politicians are of an ideological bent that irrationally connects this retributive approach to crime to family values (other than Jesus' family, I guess), smaller government (freedom from corporate regulation) and lower taxes accompanied by smaller budgets. An essential element to this mantra is presumed governmental waste and, as our governor promised in the recall, the elimination of the waste and inefficiencies of our State government.

Recently, the LA Times reported on the ever-increasing costs of the proposed new death row to be constructed at San Quentin, noting that "the projected cost of the project has soared by nearly 80% for a compound that could be full only three years after it opens..." The plan budgeted at $220 million is now estimated at $395 million, but only if construction begins by November. Even so, the structure as now envisioned will have 25% fewer cells, some containing two condemned inmates instead of the original single-occupancy originally intended.

I think this revelation of one aspect of the enormous overall cost of maintaining the state's death penalty machinery might raise doubts in the minds of some who continue to advocate its retention. Perhaps if not convinced by reason, the Christian imperative, the example of other nations as opposed to the example of state brutality, they will be by the cost-benefit analysis. They will see that they cannot have it all ways. In politics as in life, choices must be made, and priorities must be established. Given the staggering statistics, perhaps these folks might think it time to consider their priorities when considering the cost of the death penalty in our current budget.

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As far back as March 6, 2005, the LA Times reported that maintaining the California death penalty system costs taxpayers more than $114 million a year beyond the cost of simply keeping the convicts locked up for life, not counting the millions more spent on court costs to prosecute capital cases. As of that date, it was reported that it cost us $90,000 more a year to house a prisoner on death row than it does in the general population.

Since then the death row population has increased to 669 prisoners, with an average of 12 more added annually. Needless to say, costs have risen as well. Given the alternatives to which these enormous sums could be allocated toward making our streets safer or our children better educated, are we not getting to the point where we must consider whether or not retention of this practice is cost effective by any measure?

As long as we retain the death penalty, there is no good, economically sound solution. On May 28, an Assembly subcommittee temporarily denied funding for the death row project so as to not throw good money after bad, while the governor insists that a new plan would involve further delays and even greater costs. The only solution to this Gordian knot is to cut the death penalty out of California and free up the hundreds of millions of dollars squandered on maintaining this industry.

Addendum: The Report of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice states at p. 72: The term of imprisonment is the defendant's life. He is being sentenced to die in prison. Not only are the costs of confinement significantly reduced, compared to the cost of confinement on death row, many of the costs of trial and appellate review for death cases are eliminated. And quoting a California auditor's report: the cost of running and staffing the new (and almost already outdated) death row facility for 20 years will dwarf its building costs, coming in at $1.2 billion. Finally, a cost chart on page 84, reviewing several options, places the current annual cost of the death penalty at $137 million and that of life imprisonment without parole LWOP) at $11.5 million. For further reading go the Commission link.


by Robert Silver

Robert Silver is a transplanted New Yorker, having been educated in public schools and then graduating from Columbia University Law School. He served in the Army in Viet Nam. Robert first wrote in opposition to the death penalty to satisfy a high school assignment (stating that he has no idea what the assignment was). Robert has been living in California since 1990, and is earning his living as an actor. He also serves on the Executive Board of the California Democratic Party representing the 43rd A.D.

Reprinted with permission from the Valley Democrats United newsletter, Margie Murray, Editor, where the article first appeared.