SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A state lawmaker on Monday introduced a bill seeking a public vote on whether California should abolish capital punishment and convert death sentences to life in prison, citing a study that said most condemned inmates die of suicide or old age despite billions in taxpayer costs.
Democratic Sen. Loni Hancock, of Berkeley, said the state can no longer afford the cost of trying capital cases, defending them through a lengthy appeals process and housing inmates in the nation’s most populous death row.
She cited a study prepared by Judge Arthur L. Alarcon of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell that calls the capital punishment system “a multibillion-dollar fraud on California taxpayers.”
Their analysis, to be published next month, estimates California has spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. In that time, California has executed just 13 inmates, which works out to $308 million per execution.
“Capital punishment is an expensive failure and an example of the dysfunction of our prisons,” Hancock said in a statement. “California’s death row is the largest and most costly in the United States. It is not helping to protect our state; it is helping to bankrupt us.”
They said the cumulative cost to California taxpayers will swell to $9 billion by 2030 while the condemned unit at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County will have more than 1,000 occupants by 2014.
There are 714 California inmates now awaiting execution. That’s nearly twice the number than in Florida, the state with the next largest death row population, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
On average, executions take 20 years to carry out from the time of sentencing. No one has been put to death in California since 2006 because of an ongoing legal challenge to how the state carries out executions by lethal injection and, more recently, a shortage of execution drugs.
Of inmates who had been awaiting execution, 78 have died of suicide or natural causes.
Hancock’s bill would amend state law to require life in prison without parole for those convicted of what are now capital crimes. It would put the question before voters on the November 2012 ballot.
One Republican lawmaker said Hancock’s bill was misguided.
“I appreciate that they’re trying to save money, but I don’t think we should put a price on justice,” said Sen. Joel Anderson, of La Mesa.
Anderson, vice chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, said costs could be reduced by streamlining the appeals process for death row inmates and carrying out executions more quickly.
“Death row was never intended to be a retirement home,” he said.
California taxpayers spend $184 million annually on costs associated with the death penalty, according to the study. The authors included a number of factors, including: the increased legal costs of trying capital cases, which they project at more than $1 million more than other murder cases; years of state and federal appeals; and the additional cost of $90,000 per inmate to keep condemned prisoners on death row instead of in the general prison population.
Hancock needs only a majority of lawmakers to approve her bill in a Legislature controlled by Democrats. Gov. Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, has said he personally opposes the death penalty but defended the law when he was attorney general.
Brown vetoed the Legislature’s reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977 during his first tour in the governor’s office, only to be overridden. In April, Brown scrapped plans for a $356 million death row expansion, saying the state cannot justify the expense at a time of massive budget cuts to essential services.
Whether voters agree is another matter.
A Field Poll last July found that 70 percent of Californians favored the death penalty, up from 66 percent in 2009. Support had slipped from the mid-1980s, when the death penalty was favored by as much as 83 percent of voters.
Hancock’s bill, SB490, is scheduled for its first hearing July 5 in the Assembly Public Safety Committee.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)