When Gov. Jerry Brown canceled construction of an expensive death row at San Quentin State Prison ($400 million), it was a small victory for common sense.
The hundreds of men and a few women awaiting execution won’t actually be put to death, given the immense legal and operational impediments. But maintaining the fiction that California has a death penalty for heinous crimes is very expensive when state and local governments face yawning deficits and are slashing basic educational, social and public safety services.
A recent study by federal appellate Judge Arthur Alarcon and Paul Mitchell, a Loyola Law School professor, found that California is spending $184 million a year more on its 700-plus death row inmates than it would be spending were they serving life terms without parole.
The extra millions being spent to feed, clothe, house and guard death row inmates would be better spent on much-needed reform of the entire prison system.
There are those — Republicans and conservatives, mostly — who contend that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. But if that’s true, it’s only if capital punishment is certain and swift.
If condemned felons are more likely to succumb to disease and/or old age than a trip to the execution chamber, whatever deterrent value it might have is reduced to abstract symbolism.
So even one who might support capital punishment — an eye for an eye — in theory should accept that in practice, it has become meaningless, since only a relative handful of those who kill are themselves condemned, and virtually no one who receives the sentence actually will take the long walk.
It’s time to accept reality and adjust to it, and that should mean doing away with the fiction of capital punishment and substituting the reality of life imprisonment. Last week, state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, introduced legislation to do exactly that.
“Capital punishment is an expensive failure and an example of the dysfunction of our prisons,” Hancock said. “California’s death row is the largest and most costly in the United States. It is not helping to protect our state; it is helping to bankrupt us.
“Today, we’re not tough on crime; we’re tough on the taxpayer. Every time we spend money on failed policies like the death penalty, we drain money from having more police officers on the street, more job training, more education, more of the things that would truly make for safer communities.”
She’s absolutely correct.
Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.