End the death penalty in 2012

If we can't muster a death penalty ban on moral grounds, what about economic ones?

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EDITORIAL It's time to end the death penalty in California. And November 2012 may be the best chance.

A coalition led by the ACLU is launching a campaign for a ballot initiative to end executions in this state. All the pieces are in place: an outmoded, dysfunctional system that a growing number of law-enforcement veterans say is a waste of time an money. An emerging majority of California voters who no longer support the death penalty. And what's shaping up to be a well-funded, well-organized campaign aiming for a vote in a presidential election year, when turnout will be relatively high.

The moral and human case against the death penalty is obvious — giving the state the power to kill people is wrong. The implementation of the system is, to say the least, arbitrary and capricious: Poor people and people of color are way more likely to face capital punishment than white people who have money. Many, if not most, of the people on death row have serious mental health issues, organic brain damage or were victims of abuse. No other civilized country in the developed world still allows executions.

But there's also hard, cold, financial evidence that the current system isn't working, evidence that appeals to conservatives. Simply put, the death penalty is a phenomenal waste of money. Since 1978, a recent Los Angeles Times study showed, California has spent $4 billion to execute a grand total of 13 people. That's $308 million per killing.

It costs $184 million more a year to keep 714 people on death row than it would cost if they were serving life without parole. It costs millions more to prosecute and defend capital cases (a relatively low-cost death penalty prosecution still costs $1 million more than a high-priced LWOP case) and the state spends more than $300,000 per inmate for publicly subsidized defense.

Most of the death row inmates have no appeals lawyers; the cost of appeals is so high, and the work so difficult, that few private lawyers will take those cases, and the wait for a publicly funded attorney is more than 15 years. Victims get little closure from executions, since the process (properly, and by law) takes so long and is so drawn out. In fact, the most common cause of death on death row is old age.

Then there's the fact that the drugs used in California executions are no longer made in the United States — and imported drugs may not meet U.S. quality standards. So the lethal-injection protocol now in place — which is, by itself, cruel and unusual punishment — may not survive legal challenges.

So it's time. Local governments in San Francisco and the East Bay should endorse the effort and help promote the ballot measure. The coalition needs money and volunteers for signature gathering. Go to safecalifornia. org and sign up.

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