The escalating expense of executing inmates

June 20, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
An East Bay lawmaker announced Monday her plans to launch a new crusade to abolish the death penalty in California.

Democrat Loni Hancock called capital punishment "an expensive failure" that she says "is not helping to protect our state. It is helping to bankrupt us."

With unprecedented access to records at Corrections, a federal judge and a Loyola law professor found California taxpayers spend more $184 million extra a year on death row, when compared to inmates in prison for life without the possibility of parole. Despite having more than 700 inmates on death row, many die of natural causes. Only 13 executions have been performed since voters reinstated the death penalty in 1978. Since then, the state doled out more than $4 billion for death row and the study predicts those costs will balloon to $9 billion by 2030 when there will more than 1,000 inmates there.

"This report really points at the Legislature and says, 'You botched it. You really didn't make the reforms that you would need to have to have an operative death penalty,'" Professor Laurie Levenson said.

In addition to incarceration costs, the years, sometimes decades-long, appeals process also drives expenses up. Meanwhile, executions have been on hold since 2006 because of the legal challenge to the use of lethal injection. Opponents say the study raises questions over whether California should continue to have the death penalty given the state's budget crisis.

"It's a hideous waste of California's taxpayers' money. What we can do and what we should do is eliminate the death penalty entirely," said Mike Farrell with Death Penalty Focus.

"Until the people say, 'That's a penalty we don't want any more' or 'It costing us too much. We just can't do it here in California,' we have to keep it," said Republican Assm. Steve Knight of Palmdale.

The study's authors say voters were duped at the ballot box and were not aware of the costs associated with death row. They suggest it is time to put the question back before Californians. Changing or even abolishing the death penalty will certainly be a fight as voters are split on the issue.


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