As of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) most recent survey, California has the most death row inmates of any state in the country with 724. Despite the increasingly high number of death sentences handed down in California, only thirteen executions have been carried out since 1977. This seemingly inefficiency has many former California supporters questioning their support of the death penalty. One editorial in the Sacramento Bee characterized California’s system as an “outlawed, flawed, and expensive system of punishment that needs to be replaced with a rock-solid sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole." The newspaper, which had previously supported the death penalty, urges its readers to vote in favor of Proposition 34 rather than invest in more money into a broken system.
The cost of the death penalty has also become a concern for longtime supporters, including former district attorney of L.A. County, Gil Garcetti. Garcetti observed, “I was a supporter and believer in the death penalty, but I've begun to see that this system doesn't work and it isn't functional. It costs an obscene amount of money." The costs in a capital case remain exponentially higher in all aspects from trying the case through housing the inmate. A recent study explained that jury selection costs the state $200,000 more in capital cases. Additionally, it costs $100,000 more a year to house a death row inmate in state prison. The appeals process adds to the already steep costs, with state and federal habeas petitions costing the state approximately $1.7 billion.
Cost isn’t the only factor weighing against California’s capital punishment system. Studies also suggest that capital punishment is not a conclusive functional deterrent to crime. One study by the National Research Council recommends that public officials not use studies interpreting homicide rates to legislate death penalty issues. The Council explains that these studies usually have three fundamental flaws. First, they do not factor in the number of noncapital punishments that may be imposed. Second, the studies use incomplete or implausible models of potential murderers’ perceptions of and response to the use of capital punishment. Finally, the estimates of the effect of capital punishment are based on statistical models that make assumptions that are not credible.
Beyond deterrence, perhaps the most compelling factor that undermines the use of capital punishment is the increasingly high number of wrongful convictions cases. To date, five men who were sentenced to death in California have later been found innocent. The reasons for conviction in the cases range from prosecutorial misconduct to ineffective representation and insufficient evidence. Given the finality of capital punishment, even one wrongful conviction should have California voters thinking twice about Proposition 34 at the polls this November.
The decision California voters have in front of them this year on Election Day is monumental. In a state where budget concerns have been an issue for years, it only seems logical that the outdated, money-sucking capital punishment system should be abolished. If California does abolish the death penalty, then the remaining few states that have also been considering abolition may choose to follow suit. Voters who have previously supported the death penalty in embracing the mantra, “Let the punishment fit the crime,” should consider the overwhelming evidence suggesting that the system is ineffective in preventing crime, cost prohibitive, and unjust.
Ali EachoJunior Blog Editor, Criminal Law Brief