Last week, State Senator Loni Hancock introduced a bill in the California legislature which could abolish the death penalty, and commute all of the state’s death sentences to life without parole. Hancock’s proposal would place an initiative on the November 2012 ballot, allowing California voters to decide whether they want to join Illinois and the sixteen other states where capital punishment is illegal.
Hancock says that ending the death penalty would save California billions of dollars, powerful words for a state in the grips of a massive budget crisis. ”We are spending $184 million a year on a death penalty fiction that actually rarely executes anyone and costs a fortune,” Hancock explained.
California has an enormous number of people on death row (714 to be precise), nearly twice the number as Florida, the state with the next-largest death row population. And this is costing the state a ridiculous amount of money: according to the LA Times, “taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment in California since it was reinstated in 1978,” which could in part explain the state’s massive budget shortfall. This is in large part because the lag time between conviction and execution is, on average, around 20 years, and because California has not executed a criminal since 2006 due to a court battle over how executions should be conducted, this gap is only growing.
“We really want voters to wake up and realise this is a horrible waste of money. If they are going to insist on keeping the death penalty they are going to have to spend even more money to fix it,” says Paula Mitchell, a law professor and the joint author of a report on the death penalty in California.
Is now the time for California to start waking up? According to the California group, Death Penalty Focus, the bill will have its first hearing next week. As is often the case with the political process, it may not advance very far unless California voters show that this is an issue they care about. So although the bill must be approved by the state legislature and signed by the governor before an initiative to repeal the death penalty can appear on the 2012 ballot, you can make your voice heard by writing to your legislators and telling them to help the bill progress.
Ending the death penalty could clearly save the state of California a lot of money. And for many, the ethical implications are equally, if not more important. If you are opposed to capital punishment, whether for economic or ideological reasons, and live in California, this 4th of July weekend, tell your legislators that our country is better than the death penalty.