Guest Post: Cut This: The Death Penalty by James Clark

[The following post is being republished here with the permission of its author, James Clark, field organizer for the ACLU, Southern California.  It was previously published on the Huffington Post on June 28, 2010.]

California's governor has proposed closing the state's $20 billion budget gap with a drastic cuts-only approach; slashing funding for vital human services without working to increase revenue. Yet one state program seems to be immune from these cuts: the death penalty.

We think the time has come to CUT THIS. (see video below) 

California spends vast amounts of money prosecuting death penalty cases and supporting death row. To avoid executing an innocent person, the death penalty process is long, complicated, and expensive. Each prosecution seeking death costs approximately $1.1 million more than a trial seeking permanent imprisonment, and with more than 700 inmates, California's death row is by far the largest and most costly in the nation. In total, California's death penalty system costs taxpayers $137 million per year.

Contrast that with just $11 million per year if we replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment. Top that off with $400 million saved if we don't build a new death row, needed because the existing one is so old and overcrowded.

Today, if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger were to convert the sentences of all those on death row to permanent imprisonment, the state would save $1 billion over the next five years without releasing a single prisoner.

But the death penalty is not on the chopping block. Rather than cutting the death penalty, the governor has focused on cutting the "rehabilitation" side of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Programs emphasizing education, rehabilitation, and addiction treatment have all seen cuts to their budgets, while death penalty prosecutions continue statewide. 

Meanwhile, efforts to get California's budget under control are threatening the safety of the state's most vulnerable residents: seniors and people with disabilities who rely on in-home supportive care, working moms and their children surviving round after round of cuts to child care and CalWORKs, and children who depend on the Healthy Families program for insurance coverage. They all have faced dangerous erosions in access to health care and social services. Yet funding for death penalty prosecutions continues unabated.

Even victims of violent crime have felt the sting of the state budget cuts. Last year, the legislature and the governor took $50 million from the Victims' Compensation Fund, cutting money used to pay for funeral services, counseling, and medical care for crime victims and their families. Now the fund is running out of money because the state has prioritized execution above victims' services.

In addition, local law enforcement is also under threat. Los Angeles is currently unable to afford overtime pay for homicide investigations, and Oakland is about to lay off 80 police officers. Already, more than half of the murders from the last 10 years remain unsolved in Los Angeles County and Alameda County, where Oakland is located. Statewide, 45 percent of murders were not solved from 1999 to 2008. That means up to 10,000 killers walk the streets because we are not spending the time and money needed to catch them.

California must re-evaluate its budget priorities. Cuts to social services and effective public safety programs that protect communities and reduce crime threaten California families. Permanent imprisonment is a safe and cost-effective alternative to the death penalty, providing swift and certain justice, real public safety, and massive budget savings that can be passed on to taxpayers. Every day, more and more Californians are calling on Gov. Schwarzenegger to CUT THIS. End the death penalty and save $1 billion in five years.

Learn more about how we can achieve Budget Justice in California.



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Comments (2) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Dudley Sharp - July 8, 2010 7:49 AM

Clark/CCFAJ's cost review is wildly inaccurate and I doubt that there is any more veracity to the death row costs than with their lifer cost evaluations. None of Clark/CCFAJ's numbers can be relied upon.

Clark says annual cost for 700 death row inmates is $137 million per year or $196,000//inmate/yr

Clark also says that if those death row cases were converted to lifers it would be $11 million/year or $15,700/inmate/yr

Don't laugh. Yes, it is complete utter nonsense.

Some reality:

The last full California audit (Sept 2009) found the average costs, 2007-2008, per adult inmate was $49,000/inmate/yr.
(pg 77, fiscal year 2007-2008,

(NOTE: In 1997, it was $25,000/inmate/yr.

This $49,000/inmate/yr is the average for all inmates, not the level IV security of death row inmate like criminals that will cost more, if not much more. Clark is stating that these enhanced security prisoners will cost $34,000/inmate/yr LESS than the average cost for all Ca inmates. Clark's lack of credibility is of an astounding level. Clark's analysis is laughable.

But, Clark/CCFAJ get even worse.

Without the death penalty, Clark/CCFAJ's select group of murderers would likely be in level IV security and, as lifers, would die as geriatric prisoners or of early illness, likely costing on average $80,000-$100,000/inmate/yr., or more, with a rare few costing a $1 million or more per year with illness and/or geriatric stages. Geriatric problems often begins at age 50 for inmates.

NOTE: The California Medical Facility for corrections averages $83,000/inmate/yr. (page 80, fiscal year 2007-2008, Add to that the additional costs of level IV security cells.

But, it gets even worse for Clark/CCFAJ.

Clark will admit, only if prodded ( that "the figure of $137 million estimates the entire cost of the death penalty system, not simply housing, but also inclusive of all post-conviction costs, including legal appeals."

In other words, even Clark is admitting escalating the death penalty costs over the alleged cost comparisons of incarceration between lifers and death row. Oh, btw, "all post conviction costs, including legal appeals" for the life costs are left out.

The Clark/CCFAJ's cost comparisons/evaluations are a very bad joke. Instead of making an honest apples to apples cost comparison, Clark brings us an apples to Rolls Royce cost comparison.

For obvious reasons, California decided that they needed an objective assessment and considered a thorough study by RAND, below, but rejected it.

"Investigating the Costs of the Death Penalty in California: Insights for Future Data Collection in California, RAND Corp., 2/2008

CONCLUSION - Save even more money?

There is no need for California to have a death row. Current death row prisoners can be placed in Level IV security cells, or lower levels depending upon evaluations, just as Missouri and Kansas do.

California can make their death sentenced inmates cheaper than their lifers, if they properly manage their citizens money, as Virginia does. California must only have the will to be responsible stewards of their citizens resources - something that seems to elude California lawmakers, just as basic, accurate evaluations evade Clark/CCFAJ.

Even today, there is no reason for Ca death row to cost more than level IV security and a proper evaluation would likely show death row cheaper or no more expensive than Level IV.

There would be no cost savings in getting rid of death row, with the exception that, if Calif had a responsible death penalty protocol, there would be many more executed murderers, thus reducing incarceration costs on death row, saving money on incarcerations costs over other level IV prisoners.

MyFloridaDefenseLawyer - July 15, 2010 9:38 AM

It's a tough call, yes it's an expensive process with many complications, but not executing an innocent is a huge deal. Then again, if California isn't executing those who are guilty and keeping them imprisoned isn't going to help the budget.

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