It has been more than 10 years since an inmate on California’s death row has been executed, and California citizens are split about what should be done about the state’s death penalty law.
According to a recent Field poll, 47 percent of Californians favor replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole. Support for getting rid of the death penalty increased by 7 percentage points since 2014. The poll also found, however, that 48 percent of Californians support speeding up the execution process by limiting the number of inmates’ appeals.
This year, two initiatives dealing with those opposing perspectives on the death penalty may be on the ballot. The first, “The Justice That Works Act of 2016,” would formally eliminate the death penalty in California and replace all death sentences with life without the possibility of parole. “The Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016” would limit the appeals inmates on death row may file, which would effectively speed up executions.
Today, there are 746 inmates on California’s death row, up from 646 in 2006. Although 117 death row inmates have died since 1976, only 13 were executed. The overwhelming majority died from natural causes, such as old age, or suicide.
There are so many inmates on death row that California ran out of space to house them all. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown requested over $3 million from the Legislature to build more death row cells. It’s clear that the current system is unsustainable. But would limiting death penalty appeals actually speed up the execution process, or “fix” a system that is arguably broken on its face? There’s little evidence to suggest it would.
Indeed, in 2008, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice issued a report that declared the death penalty in California “dysfunctional.” The commission found it wasn’t the lengthy appeals process slowing down the execution process, but, rather, the lack of available legal representation for inmates on death row – many of whom wait years for the state to appoint lawyers to their cases due to their indigent status.
“To reduce the average lapse of time from sentence to execution by half,” the report said, “[California] will have to spend nearly twice what we are spending now.”
The death penalty is also expensive to maintain. According to that same 2008 report, California spends approximately $137 million per year just on the death penalty. If it were to expand the number of lawyers appointed to represent inmates to clear up the backlog, the state would have to spend another $95 million, or roughly $232 million per year.
In 2006, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel stopped all executions in California, stating that the state’s execution process was flawed. In 2014, a federal judge declared capital punishment in California unconstitutional, but that decision was reversed in 2015 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
It’s up to voters to decide what should be done about the death penalty, but evidence has shown capital punishment in California is a bungled, expensive mess. Even if it is “fixed” in the ways one of the ballot initiatives proposes, it’s going to cost California taxpayers twice as much as it does now, with no real guarantee that additional executions are carried out.
Replacing this broken system with life without the possibility of parole would still ensure that the most heinous criminals die in prison, but would prevent taxpayers from spending billions on a system proven to be a complete failure.
Lauren Krisai is director of criminal justice reform at Reason Foundation.