Eliminating the Death Penalty Can Save California Money

California no longer possesses the luxury of supporting emotion-based policies that cannot deliver on their promises. And the death penalty, despite claims to the contrary, heads that list.
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California, in a one-time act of financial desperation, seeks to sell 11 state properties as a way to raise $1.2 billion to help ease California's budget woes. The state would lease back the properties.

This is a minor short-term solution that creates a larger long-term problem. If the sale goes through, California would become a tenant to a private landlord, paying rent instead of paying down existing debt, which ultimately would have been retired, leaving the properties free and clear.

Moreover, this fails to factor that California will ultimately give back in rents the profits from the sale. Nor does it consider that $1.2 billion will not solve the state's projected $28 billion deficit over the next 18 months.

Rather than sell the properties, the state could save money in a more responsible manner: Eliminate the death penalty.

This is not a moral plea, but rather a simple, dispassionate and pragmatic argument that California can ill-afford to maintain an ineffectual policy that is bleeding money.

California no longer possesses the luxury of supporting emotion-based policies that cannot deliver on their promises. And the death penalty, despite claims to the contrary, heads that list.

The death penalty is much more expensive than life without parole because the Constitution requires a long and complex judicial process for capital cases. This process is needed in order to ensure that the innocent are not executed for crimes they did not commit. But even these protections fail to completely eliminate the risk of executing an innocent person.

If the death penalty was replaced with life without the possibility of parole, which costs millions less and also ensures that the public is protected while eliminating the risk of an irreversible mistake, the money saved could be spent on programs that actually improve the communities in which we live.

If California were not in such dire straits financially, the millions of dollars saved by eliminating the death penalty could be spent on education, roads, police and public safety programs, after-school programs, drug and alcohol treatment, child abuse prevention programs, mental health services, and services for crime victims and their families.

More than 3,500 men and woman have received a death sentence in California since 1978. A 2008 report by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice states: "The additional cost of confining an inmate to death row, as compared to the maximum security prisons where those sentenced to life without possibility of parole ordinarily serve their sentences, is $90,000 per year per inmate."

With California's death-row population at the time of 670, that works out to an unnecessary $60.3 million annually. The cost of a system that only imposes life without the possibility of parole would be an estimated $11.5 million per year.

Given the majority of death row inmates are more likely to die of something other than lethal injection, California already has quasi life without parole. But the California taxpayer is burdened with an additional cost so that the death penalty continues to exist in theory.

The popular retort to this argument is to point out the most heinous crimes as justification for a policy that does not work by any measurable standard. But the measure of public policy cannot be the exception; it must be based on its effectiveness within the parameters of the Constitution.

The time has come to replace policies of emotion with those the state can afford. The state will not be less safe; it will just save more money. Eliminating the death penalty does not solve California's financial problems, but neither does a one-time sale of state property.

Another added benefit to eliminating the death penalty could be to change the discourse in our public conversation. If the death penalty could be eliminated based on judicious reasoning, couldn't we apply similar methodologies to other challenging issues that plague the state?

President Kennedy once quipped that his biggest surprise upon entering the Oval Office was that "things were just as bad as we had been saying they were."

What Kennedy said nearly 50 years ago holds true for California today. The problems are as bad as many have been saying, but the question remains: Are we mature enough to do anything about it?

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or visit his Web site byronspeaks.com.

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