SB 490: Let the Voters Make an Informed Decision

Posted on 01 August 2011

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionSend by emailSend by email

By James Clark

No one is surprised to learn that California’s death penalty is a broken and dysfunctional system. After all, you don’t have to go far in California to find any government bureaucracy that’s broken or dysfunctional – it’s finding a functional government program that might take a while. The question is: How do we fix it? How do we punish the worst criminals in a way that maximizes public safety without bankrupting the budget?

A new bill in the California State Senate, SB 490, has a shockingly simple solution: give voters the facts and let the voters decide. (The shock is that it’s taken 30 years to figure that out.)

In 1978, when California voters first reinstated the death penalty, no one knew how much it would cost. No one knew how long executions would take, how many attorneys would be required to prosecute and defend the appeals, how large a facility would be needed to house death row inmates – in short, no one knew what a big, expensive mess it would be.

Thirty-three years later, we know. We now know that the death penalty is a hollow promise to victims’ family members. These families wait 25 years– on average– for resolution to a death sentence. 99% of those sentenced to die are never executed and die from old age or sickness instead.

And we know from empirical research that the death penalty costs vastly more than the alternative of life without parole – $184 million every year. We also know from common sense that public safety improves when money is used for real solutions, like law enforcement officers on the street or violence prevention and education in schools.

Don Heller is the man behind the 1978 initiative to reinstate the death penalty. The Don Heller of 2011, however, acknowledges that he simply didn’t know enough 33 years ago. No one in California, including him, had the experience or foresight to predict such a dismal failure. In 2011, even Don Heller supports SB 490 to replace the death penalty. He thinks California voters will too — once they know the facts.

SB 490 will give voters the option of replacing the death penalty with life without parole. If passed, it will save us $1 billion over the next five years. It’s often assumed that voters strongly support the death penalty, but people are rarely asked if they really think it’s worth a billion dollars. With the real-world costs and real-world solutions laid plainly on the table, California voters must decide once and for all if the death penalty is really the most efficient use of those dollars.

Here are some other things California could invest in. For the cost of one execution ($308 million), California taxpayers could afford to:

For the annual cost of the death penalty system ($184 million per year), California taxpayers could afford to:

Sign the petition to tell the California legislature it’s time the people had all the facts to make an informed decision about the death penalty.


James Clark is the Death Penalty Field Organizer for the ACLU of Southern California.

So what's the alternative cost to dismantle the death penalty?
Sure you can hire more officers, but then you overburden the courts when more criminals are apprehended, then you have to add more infrastructure to the court system.....and what about housing all those criminals???? Prisons and jails are already overcrowded and under mandatory law to reduce prison populations, hence letting dangerous criminals back onto the street, and this is even without an increase in the criminal population that would be caught and put through the process.....and what about the prison cost itself????
How many more would we have to build, how much more would be wasted on healthcare to the prison population, which by your own words, has an aging population????

You are short-sided in your approach, and your stance does nothing to address the real problem!

Why dont you back a more reasonable approach, like minimizing the amount of appeals for those killers who are found guilty of heinous crimes! Like substituting real punishments for crimes such as sexual predators, child rape, etc....castration!

Any discussion of SB 490 must begin with an understanding
of the almost unimaginable costs of legally killing a human
being in a society where a large percentage of the
population either know that it's wrong or at least feel
uneasy carrying through the decision in practice. That cost
has been estimated at $4 billion since 1977, when the death
penalty was restored in California, or about $300 million
on each of the 13 executions which has taken place. In one
of those cases, that of Thomas Thompson (executed July 14,
1998, under Governor Pete Wilson), there are very real
questions about whether Thompson was guilty of capital
murder. He was executed on a technicality because the
judges of the Ninth Circuit -- not his attorneys or himself
-- missed a deadline because of a glitch in the Court's
calendar system, when California law as it developed within
a few years would require a retrial!

It's important to understand that redirecting our law
enforcement efforts from trying to execute a tiny fraction
of murderers to raising the clearance rates for homicide
(only around 50% in many California counties) and following
the current practice of keeping those killers behind bars
for many years even in cases where life without parole
(LWOP) isn't imposed, is the cost-effective as well as
moral thing to do.

Do we really want to spend $184 million a year in a strange
quest to kill a few murderers already safely behind bars
and who will never get out under LWOP, rather than to get
more killers off the street, and also to provide better
funded services to crime victims and their families?

The prison overcrowding problem stems mainly not from
catching and incarcerating murderers, but from questionable
uses of imprisonment in crimes not involving the use or
threat of violence. That's another policy issue, and SB 490
frees funds which I hope we will use more wisely by
re-examining the possibilities of alternative sentences in
cases of nonviolent offenders.

Another reason to support SB 490 is that under California
law, prisoners serving LWOP are also required to perform
labor and make restitution to the families of murder
victims. That's justice, and justice that helps victims
rather than inflicts the horrors of homicide on a new
family. Groups like California Crime Victims for
Alternatives to the Death Penalty understand that there is
no "closure" in these cases, but the hope of healing which
is not advanced by a new killing.

One thing we've seen during the last 34 years in California
is that permanent imprisonment or LWOP means exactly what
it says -- with the one "escape clause" that a handful of
the 3700 and more prisoners getting this sentence have been
released when shown to be actually innocent of the crimes
for which they were convicted. Apart from that, LWOP is a
sentence of death through imprisonment, without the brutal
and brutally expensive quest for the ritual human sacrifice
of an execution.