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Californians Vote to Keep the Death Penalty

Cost considerations, Exonerations, and Finality for Victims Raise Concerns about Capital Punishment

On November 6, California voters rejected the latest attempt to repeal California's death penalty ending the hopes, at least temporarily until the next proposition comes out, of activists who saw this election as their best chance in 35 years to end capital punishment in the state.

With all ballots counted, voters rejected Proposition 34 by a margin of 52.8% to 47.2%. The defeat came even though recent polling showed concern growing over the cost of capital punishment and the punishment rarely being enforced.

Since 1989 California has sentenced two men to death who were later exonerated and released from prison. In 2011 and 2012 alone, five California men who were wrongfully convicted of murder but received lesser sentences were exonerated and released from prison.

California has executed just 13 convicts and its death row has ballooned to 726 inmates since 71 percentage of the electorate voted to reinstate capital punishment in 1978. No executions have taken place since 2006 because of federal and state lawsuits filed by death row inmates. According to a study by Loyola Marymount University and Loyola Law School, ending the death penalty would save the state $130 million annually.

Perhaps post-conviction DNA exonerations are not good enough reasons to end capital punishment. However, another consideration, I believe, is – the humanity of putting someone to death. I can understand the feeling of families that lost a loved one -- “an eye for an eye.” However, it is disconcerting to say the least that the process often drags on for years. Year after year those losing a loved one wait while appeals and other delays prevent the sentence from being carried out. The average time on death row ranges from about 10-20 years. There is no finality in the system. I can’t stand in the shoes of affected families but do feel, personally, that it would be better to know the convicted person would spend the rest of his/her life in jail without the possibility of parole.

Returning to California, Shujaa Graham was convicted of robbery and given a life-sentence in 1976. He was later blamed for the murder of a prison guard and put on death row.  Finally, after a fourth trial, he was acquitted of the murder - and his robbery conviction was also overturned.  He was released in 1981, a relatively short period on death row before exoneration. Since then - for 35 years - his mission in life has been to raise awareness about wrongful conviction.

"What has happened to me is over with and done," he said. "No one can bring those years back and no one can bring the psychological scars. No one can remove the physical scars.” His wife points out that he still suffers from abusive treatment and laments losing formative years of his life.

The death penalty not only fails as a solution to the problem of violence in the U.S. but, because of the excessive costs of implementation, capital punishment interferes with a spectrum of preventive programs that have been demonstrated to work well.

Throughout the U.S., police are being laid off, prisoners are being released early, the courts are clogged, and crime continues to rise. The economic recession has caused cutbacks in the backbone of the criminal justice system. In Florida, the budget crisis resulted in the early release of 3,000 prisoners. In Texas, prisoners are serving only 20% of their time and rearrests are common. Georgia is laying off 900 correctional personnel and New Jersey has had to dismiss 500 police officers. Yet these same states, and many others like them, are pouring millions of dollars into the death penalty with no resultant reduction in crime.

The exorbitant costs of capital punishment are actually making America less safe because badly needed financial and legal resources are being diverted from effective crime fighting strategies. Before the Los Angeles riots, for example, California had little money for innovations like community policing, but was managing to spend an extra $90 million per year on capital punishment. Texas, with over 300 people on death row, is spending an estimated $2.3 million per case, but its murder rate remains one of the highest in the country.

The death penalty is escaping the decisive cost-benefit analysis to which every other program is being put in times of austerity. Rather than being posed as a single, but costly, alternative in a spectrum of approaches to crime, the death penalty operates at the extremes of political rhetoric.

The death penalty is much more expensive than its closest alternative -- life imprisonment with no parole. Capital trials are longer and more expensive at every step than other murder trials. Pre-trial motions, expert witness investigations, jury selection, and the necessity for two trials -- one on guilt and one on sentencing -- make capital cases extremely costly, even before the appeals process begins. Guilty pleas are almost unheard of when the punishment is death. In addition, many of these trials result in a life sentence rather than the death penalty, so the state pays the cost of life imprisonment on top of the expensive trial.

Looking at the ethics of capital punishment, I close with a quote from Katherine Fullerton Gerould from her 1920 book, Modes and Morals. “Many of us do not believe in capital punishment, because thus society takes from a man what society cannot give.”

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 16, 2012