The California Supreme Court proposal to speed review of capital cases can be carried out without significant cost to taxpayers, but it’s only a first step toward easing the backlog on California’s death row, legal experts told the Los Angeles Times. Chief Justice Ronald George called for a constitutional amendment to shift the high court’s review of some death penalty cases to lower courts. He said spreading the workload could accelerate the appeals process, which can drag on for decades.
The state has the nation’s largest death row population, 667 inmates, but it takes an average of 17.2 years for them to reach execution, twice the national time period. Most officials applauded George’s effort but said another problem, and one that would be far more expensive to fix, was a shortage of lawyers to represent death row inmates on appeal. Seventy-nine lawyers at state-funded agencies handle appeals and habeas corpus petitions for condemned prisoners. Since 1997, staffing dedicated to death penalty appeals, has been reduced from 127 positions to 86. About 90 condemned convicts are awaiting appointment of counsel, a process that takes four to six years, given the backlog on death row and lawyer staffing levels.