The Los Angeles Criminal Law Blog

Prop 34: End the Death Penalty, Save $130 Million Per Year?

Fact: Since 1978, 900 individuals have been sentenced to death in California. Of those, 14 have been executed, 83 died on death row, and 75 had their sentence reduced. That's approximately a 1.6% execution rate. Meanwhile, each of those 900 individuals lived in solo cells on death row, required extra security during transports, and drained millions of dollars in state funds for decades of court hearings, attorney's fees, and other related expenses. Even pro-death penalty advocates would agree that our system is less than efficient.

The Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act (SAFE California Act) will, under the banner of budget savings, eliminate the death penalty and commute existing death sentences to life without the possibility of parole.

Legislative analysts estimate that the measure will save the state $100 million per year in the first few years, and $130 million per year afterwards. On the other hand, the measure also earmarks $100 million over the next four years for homicide investigation and prosecution.

Proponents of the measure make a few interesting points, besides the cost savings. No death penalty means no more executions of the wrongly accused, like Cameron Willingham. The state often never actually gets around to executing inmates, as we have decades of appeals per inmate. Those awaiting execution sit in single-occupancy cells and are not required to work.

SAFE California would require these inmates to work in order to pay restitution to victims. Also, no one who has been sentenced to life without parole since the late 1970s has ever been released, so there is no danger of released killers recidivating. Proponents also estimate up to $1 billion in savings in the first five years (which is far more than the $100-130 million per year cited above).

Opponents cite deterrence. Much of the arguments supplied in the voter information guide cite the worst of the worst who are currently on death row, including child murderers, cop killers, and other inmates who have earned a capital sentence. The most interesting point, however, is the lack of a deterrent effect. Under the status quo, many defendants plead guilty in order to avoid the death penalty. This saves the cost of their trial. Without the “big stick of death,” there is no motivation to plea.

They also cite the $50,000 average annual cost per inmate serving a life sentence and the $100 million earmark for funding law enforcement that comes from the general fund at a time where the state is broke.

Proposition 34 is on the ballot on November 6. The deadline to register to vote is October 22. Check back over the next couple of weeks for information on the Three Strikes and Human Trafficking Propositions that are also on the ballot.

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