California is certainly not known for its fiscal responsibility or restraint. The state ranks 42nd among U.S. states for fiscal health, and there are whole lists dedicated to ranking the ridiculous ways the state mismanages money.
Not included on those lists, though, is one outlandish failure that has drained the state’s resources for decades.
The death penalty.
California has spent a whopping $4 billion on the death penalty since it was reinstated in 1978.
During that time, 13 people have been executed.
And what have Californians received in return for that money? The highest number of reported homicides in the country, an average homicide clearance rate of 59 percent, 13,615 untested rape kits, and an ever-increasing violent crime rate that far outpaces the national average.
Fortunately, Gov. Gavin Newsom has seen the light of day. He announced a moratorium on all executions this week with an executive action that will also shut down the state’s death chamber and halt the search for new execution drugs.
His actions couldn’t have come a moment too soon.
California has the largest death row in the country with 740 people. It costs the state $47,000 a year to house a regular inmate, but the costs for housing a death row inmate are $90,000 above that.
Before anyone starts the tired “kill them faster to save money” chant, let’s establish a few things. The majority of the costs associated with a death penalty case occur at the trial level, meaning that even if a jury does not give a death sentence, the bulk of the costs are incurred anyways.
These trials are so expensive because of length. Capital cases have two parts, a guilt or innocence phase followed by a sentencing phase. They require more lawyers, better lawyers who are death penalty-certified, and more hours worked by all involved (judges, law enforcement, lab technicians).
These cases also typically include more witnesses (the experts are paid handsomely by the way), more lab testing (labs are paid based on convictions, scary), and a longer jury selection and housing process.
With new death sentences down 60 percent since 2000, there are many states wasting money on court cases that don’t even result in a death sentence. Additionally, a North Carolina cost study also found that the trial portion of death penalty cases costs at least four times that of the appellate process.
So carrying out executions faster would fail to make the system substantially cheaper—and it would guarantee the executions of even more innocent people. Innocence issues are no anomaly within death penalty systems.
To date, 164 people have been exonerated from death rows. That’s one exoneration for every ten executions. Four were in California. And that number doesn’t even include the dozens of other individuals released from death row due to potential innocence issues but not fully exonerated.
Let’s talk about arbitrariness for a second. You would think one question would drive a death sentence: Is this crime the “worst of the worst”? Not true. Rather, the key question is: Where did the crime happen? Usage of the death penalty is highly concentrated, with only 2 percent of counties bringing the majority of capital cases. All executions since reinstatement have taken place in fewer than 16 percent of counties.
It’s a random system with no rhyme or reason.
After location, a person’s socioeconomic status and the race of their victim are the next driving factors that predict whether or not they will receive a death sentence. If you can afford a good attorney, you are most likely not getting the death penalty – no matter what you did.
Across the country, death rows are filled with inmates who were represented by a lawyer that was later disbarred or disciplined.
In his announcement, Gov. Newsom called the death penalty “discriminatory and immoral.” There’s no questioning the accuracy of this statement.
In 96 percent of all cases studied there has been overwhelming evidence of racial bias against the defendant, victim, or both. And in California, a person is three times more likely to get the death penalty if their victim was white than if they were black or Hispanic.
That’s nothing short of corrupt.
Not only is the death penalty expensive, risky, and random, it also fails to do its purported job. The death penalty is not a deterrent. Crime statistics back this up, and so do criminologists and police chiefs.
All agree that criminals do not think about the punishment when acting. Police chiefs actually rank the death penalty as the least effective tool for fighting crime and say what they really need to make communities safer is more resources.
Upon examination, it should be quite clear to all that the death penalty is nothing more than another failed big government program with all of the misallocation of resources and corruption that marks government.
This is why repealing the system is quickly becoming a bipartisan issue, with Republicans in eight states championing repeal bills this year alone.
As supporters of limited government, fiscal responsibility, and protecting the sanctity of human life, there are countless reasons for conservatives to oppose the death penalty.
On behalf of my organization, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, we commend Gov. Newsom for his leadership on this issue and hope that this is an example that others across the country will follow.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. She was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Readers’ comments are welcome.