Since When Don't We Put a Price Tag on Justice?

Faced with unassailable evidence that the death penalty in California costs hundreds of millions of dollars per year, death penalty supporters tend to respond with what is intended to be a conversation stopper: "You can't put a price tag on justice."

But wait a minute. Don't we already? Only in a world with unlimited resources could we run government programs with no regard for their price tags. Unfortunately, that is not where we live today. Consider Governor Jerry Brown's latest budget proposal as reported by the New York Times:

Struggling to contain mounting state budget shortfalls, Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday proposed $8.3 billion in spending cuts, including slashing state employees pay and spending on social programs and prisons. He warned that California would have to impose another $6 billion in cuts on public schools and higher education if voters fail to approve his initiative this fall to raise sales and income taxes.

My kids go to public school in California and I teach at a public law school. I would love to be able to say, "You can't put a price tag on an education." But that would be ridiculous. It happens all the time.

The implication in the death penalty context, of course, is that only the most heartless among us would relish telling the mother of a murder victim that the person who killed her child is not going to be executed because, well, it just costs too much.

But here's what we need to remember: about half of all rapes and murders in California go unsolved. A 2009 survey asked law enforcement officials what interfered with effective law enforcement. The number one answer was lack of resources. (Last on the list was "insufficient use of the death penalty.") Thousands of rape kits across the state sit unexamined, because there is no money to conduct DNA testing.

The victims of unsolved murders and rapes are no less deserving of justice than the victims of solved crimes. The SAFE California initiative that will be on the ballot in November would eliminate the death penalty, save $1 billion that we desperately need over the next five years, and create a "$100 million fund to be distributed to law enforcement agencies to help solve more homicide and rape cases."

The next time you hear someone say that you can't put a price tag on justice, ask them if they would say the same thing to the family members of victims of the 1,000 murders that go unsolved in California each year.

I'd love to live in a California with no price tags. Until then, the price tag on the death penalty is busting our state's budget.