Last week, Californians had their first opportunity to speak out about the state’s execution procedures at an official state hearing. Thousands made their voices heard and their message was clear: it is time for California to replace its costly and broken death penalty and save the state $1 billion in the next five years.
As a result of legal challenges, the State of California was required to revamp its method of execution and to releases its new procedures for concerned members of the public to comment on. On May 1, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) released the new execution procedures, beginning a 60-day comment process that culminated in a day long hearing in Sacramento on June 30th. The hearing came after more than three years without executions in California, and amidst the worst budget crisis in the state since the Great Depression.
By the end of the 60 days, more than 7,000 people had submitted comments to CDCR. Nearly all objected to implementing the regulations. Many called on the CDCR to disclose the costs of carrying out executions, something the CDCR has refused to do even though disclosing the costs is required by law.
Over 250 people packed the June 30th hearing, turning a dry administrative proceeding into a sincere public debate on all of the costs of the death penalty. Traveling from as far away as Ukiah and San Diego, speaker after speaker rose to object to the execution procedures and to the state’s death penalty generally. The public outpouring was so great that the CDCR had to extend the hearing to accommodate all the speakers. Over 100 people spoke, with only two expressing support for the death penalty.
Dozens of speakers gave eloquent and personal testimony to the failures of the death penalty, including:
• Greg Wilhoit, wrongfully convicted of murder and later proven to be factually innocent, who spoke of the terror of living under a death sentence for a crime he did not commit.
• Judy Kerr, of California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, who related her immense sense of loss and anger at the murder of her brother, but emphasized that the death penalty will not restore her sense of security or justice.
• George Husaruk, one of many teachers at the hearing, who called on the state to spend money on education and other vital services now being cut, not costly executions.
• Barbara Becnel, an advocate and friend of Stanley Tookie Williams, who vividly and emotionally described the horror of watching his botched execution in 2006.
• Bill Babbitt, who told of the pain he endured as he watched the state execute his brother Manny Babbitt, a Vietnam Veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, after Bill had turned his brother in to police for the crime.
Hundreds then marched to the Capitol to deliver their message to the Governor. Carrying signs calling for “Money for Education, Not Executions,” the group congregated on the steps of the Capitol and listened as Mike Farrell, President of Death Penalty Focus, called on the Governor to immediately convert all death sentences to save the state $1 billion over the next five years.
A small contingent went in to the Capitol building to deliver to the Governor a symbolic check for $1 billion, but the Governor’s staff declined to accept it.
This aptly demonstrated the Governor’s attitude: Even as he calls on the Legislature for more and more spending cuts to critical services like health care and public safety, the Governor continues to ignore the fact that he alone has the ability to save the state $1 billion over the next five years by immediately cutting spending on the death penalty.
Where do those saving come from? The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, a bipartisan panel that conducted a comprehensive analysis of the problems with the state’s death penalty, found the following:
• It currently costs $137 million every year to administer the death penalty in California.
• If everyone on death row were instead sentenced to permanent imprisonment, the costs would be only $11 million, for a net savings of $125 million every year.
• In addition, sentencing everyone on death row to permanent imprisonment would obviate the need to build a new death row housing facility, a project that will cost $400 million.
The Commission also found that we can’t simply “kill them faster and cheaper,” as some people like to say. The Commission tried to identify reforms that would make the appellate process move more quickly. But it found that the only way to both protect the innocent from execution and increase the speed of the appeals process is to pay millions of dollars for more attorneys and court staff to process the cases. The Commission concluded that reducing the amount of time between imposing a death sentence and actual execution would cost an additional $95 million per year beyond what we currently pay, for a grand total of $232 million every year.
Californians agree: the death penalty is broken and too costly; something must be done. The only reform that will work and save the state needed cash is to replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment—life with absolutely no possibility of parole. Permanent imprisonment keeps murderers off the streets forever and provides swift justice and peace of mind to victims. It also costs much, much less and reduces the risk of executing an innocent person to zero.
If the Governor converts all death sentences to permanent imprisonment, he could then use that $1 billion check to actually make California safer by keeping more police on the streets and more crime labs open. Shouldn’t this be an easy choice?
Natasha Minsker is the death penalty policy director for the ACLU of Northern California.
Republished with permission from the California Progress Report.