Gov. Jerry Brown deals death blow to costly death-row boondoggle 

California pretends to have a death penalty for murder and other heinous crimes. That is, judges and juries sentence violent felons to die in San Quentin State Prison’s execution chamber.

But that is just a pretense because, in fact, almost no one is ever executed.

Instead, supposedly about 700 condemned inmates reside for years, even decades, on what’s called “death row.” They’re in greater danger of dying of old age — or boredom — than in taking the long walk.

The state can’t even obtain an adequate supply of the legal chemicals it would need to administer lethal injections.

Given that reality, it made absolutely no sense for the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new death row complex at San Quentin. The proposed project was not only too large — with space for more than 1,100 inmates — but its chief effect would have been to make condemned felons’ lives less stressful.

The death row boondoggle is just one of the many ways in which California has spent far more money on prisoners than it should.

A reasonable examination of the data from other states indicates that at about $10 billion a year, California is spending around twice as much on prisons as we should be.

Gov. Jerry Brown has negotiated a new contract with the prison guards’ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, that is probably more generous than it should be. On Thursday, however, he canceled the death row project at San Quentin, which is a step in the right direction.

“At a time when children, the disabled and seniors face painful cuts to essential programs, the state of California cannot justify a massive expenditure of public dollars for the worst criminals in our state,” Brown said.

“California will have to find another way to address the housing needs of condemned inmates. It would be unconscionable to earmark $356 million for a new and improved death row while making severe cuts to education and programs that serve the most vulnerable among us.”

His comment about prioritizing spending is absolutely correct. For too long, voters and politicians have assumed that we can have it all, regardless of cost, even if it requires borrowing more money to pay for it.

Brown has talked about reversing that ethos and, instead, matching income with outgo, whether it takes cutting spending or raising taxes. Canceling the death row project is a step in that direction.

There will be those who say Brown canceled the project because he’s opposed to capital punishment, as demonstrated by his veto of capital punishment legislation during his first stint as governor.

That may have been a factor, but it doesn’t matter.

It’s the right thing to do on its merits. One can only hope that he sticks to that policy as he deals with the rest of the state’s chronic budget gap.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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