Oct. 10, 2011 - A nonpartisan analysis of a California ballot initiative to abolish the death penalty found that it could save the state and counties in the "high tens of millions of dollars" every year.
The Legislative Analyst's Office review of the proposed initiative, which hasn't been cleared for signature gathering yet, put it in the middle of a debate over what the death penalty costs and what should be done about it. Some critics of the death penalty think it actually costs much more than the analysis said, while supporters of capital punishment think executions should be streamlined, not stopped, in order to cut costs.
The initiative was proposed in August after a bill to repeal the death penalty stalled in the state Legislature. In addition to eliminating capital punishment, the measure would require those convicted of murder to work in prison and provide $100 million over four years to local law enforcement to help solve homicide and rape cases. The proposal likely faces a rough road ahead, as a recent Field Poll [PDF] found a strong majority of Californians want to keep capital punishment, even as an increasing number prefer life in prison without parole.
The analyst's office report found a variety of savings to the state and counties, as well as some smaller increased costs.
For example, eliminating the death penalty would shorten murder trials, which would lower costs for prosecutors, public defenders and police. Also, death row inmates are kept in isolation and escorted with two guards each, whereas those with life sentences can be housed together at a lower cost. In addition, the lengthy appeals process in capital cases, the report states, costs $50 million per year.
On the other hand, the analysis noted, prosecutors sometimes get offenders to plead guilty, avoiding a costly trial, in exchange for not seeking the death penalty. If the possibility of execution didn't exist, more cases might go to trial and "the magnitude of these costs is unknown," the report states.
Jeanne Woodford, a former warden at San Quentin State Prison who is pushing for the ballot initiative, said some costs were "lowballed" in the analyst's office report.
"You have to work with death row inmates to understand all the costs that are associated with them," said Woodford, former head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and now executive director of Death Penalty Focus.
Woodford said costs are an important element of the debate because taxpayer money can be better spent on improving schools and law enforcement investigations. Life sentences without parole, she said, are a safe, cheaper alternative.
Death penalty supporters, however, blame opponents for driving up the costs with excessive appeals.
"They're using the excuse that it costs so much," said Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California. "They're the ones that raise the costs,"
Salarno said California should limit the appeals process. Actually executing people, she said, would be a lot cheaper.
Woodford said limiting appeals would prompt due process problems.
"To say that we'll just make it quicker doesn't solve a growing concern regarding the number of innocent people that are being found in our prison system," Woodford said.
Loyola Law School professor Paula Mitchell, co-author of a recent study on the cost of California's death penalty, said the analyst's office report "severely underestimated" costs to taxpayers. Her study [PDF], written with U.S. 9th Circuit Court Judge Arthur Alarcón, found that California has spent $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978 and $184 million in 2009 alone. It was critical of past estimates by the Legislative Analyst's Office.
Mitchell said it was disappointing that the latest report did not include the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to build a new complex for death row inmates, "which will be required if California keeps the death penalty."
"If the initiative process in California is going to function as an effective part of the democratic process, voters MUST be fully informed about the full costs of the programs they are asked to vote for or against," Mitchell wrote in an e-mail.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said the argument over costs should be separated from the philosophical decision on whether to execute prisoners. Because most Californians support the death penalty, he said, the focus should be on how to lower the costs and eliminate waste.
"We waste money all the time," Coupal said. "California tends to do things far more expensively than it needs to do."
Coupal advocates privatizing prisons and streamlining the appeals process.
"Cost effective means swift justice. Justice delayed is justice denied," he said.
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