A much circulated study released yesterday found that California spends about $184 million a year on its policy of capital punishment. That means, from a cost-result perspective, that for each of the 13 executions completed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, California has spent $308 million. The study came not from an anti-death penalty group, but from U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon, a former prosecutor, and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell.
The money issue in capital punishment has become a big one. Recently, Governor Jerry Brown halted a construction project that would have revamped and expanded death row at San Quentin State Prison, citing the project’s $365 million price tag.
Now, also citing the high financial cost of maintaining the policy, State Senator Loni Hancock is gearing up to introduce a bill that would abolish the death penalty in California. The press release reads:
“Capital punishment is an expensive failure and an example of the dysfunction of our prisons,” Hancock stated. “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.”
Hancock’s bill would eliminate capital punishment going forward in California, as well as convert the sentences of those on death row to life without the possibility of parole.
Could such a bill possibly succeed?
Common wisdom about California politics would say no. Brown learned earlier in his political career that the death penalty is a staple in this state: specifically, when Brown appointee Rose Bird was removed from the California Supreme Court after her court essentially refused to allow executions to go forward in the state. Such lessons might make legislators wary.
But the biggest hurdle must still be California’s general populace. Any ban on the death penalty would have to ultimately be tested through the ballot initiative process, because much of the state’s death penalty law is a product of the initiative system.
The most recent Field Poll shows about 70 percent of Californians support capital punishment. But that number may not properly demonstrate the nuance of voters’ approach to the penalty. Statewide elections have shown that even if voters aren’t specifically against the death penalty, protecting the punishment isn’t a top priority. Governor Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris both won office after their opponents were unsuccessful at making the death penalty, which both oppose, an issue.
And then a recent poll showed that when asked if they’d support commuting death sentences to life without parole to save the state money, 63 percent of Californians said they would.
Momentum does seem to be turning against capital punishment in the state, mostly, it seems, because of its financial cost and the distraction of the bad economy–but if the policy can wait out the budget crisis, things might change quick.