California has a serious budget crisis – projected spending is 15.2 billion (with a “B”) dollars in excess of available and projected funds. Here’s the hard truth: we will have to raise taxes, cut spending, or have some combination of both. There are no other alternatives. We got royally screwed when property values collapsed so suddenly, and that is the extent of our revenue shortfall.
I’d prefer we cut spending a hell of a lot more than we raise taxes. For that to happen, everyone has to be willing to make sacrifices in their particular spheres of influence and concern, to spread the pain around. For me, that’s the justice system, in particular the courts. Those who are in charge of the justice system need to do their part, like everyone else they must find ways tighten California’s belt so that the state’s bloated government can function. So…
We should suspend capital punishment.
I do not make this suggestion out of a moral abhorrence of capital punishment. Certain kinds of murderers, the worst of the worst, richly deserve to have their lives taken and I have no problem whatsoever with the state bloodying its hands to make that happen. I am reasonably secure with the knowledge that the extensive appellate and habeas corpus review process filters out nearly any chance that innocent people are being sent to die in San Quentin’s execution chamber.
The problem is that the extensive appellate and habeas corpus review process necessary to support a system that includes capital punishment as a sentencing option is very expensive. That portion of having a death penalty, which is legally and morally indispensable, costs the taxpayers $125,000,000 a year.
So is the heightened security mandated for death row prisoners, the bulk of whom die of medical or natural causes before they are executed anyway. There are 30 prisoners on death row who have been there for more than 25 years; and over 115 who have been there more than 20. Additional savings could be realized by downgrading these prisoners to life without possibility of parole, and therefore permitting them to be transferred to prisons where their upkeep costs would not be so high. Murder trials would not be as expensive or time-consuming. All told, we’d save $150 million or more every year if we didn’t have to do all the things necessary to support this facet of the criminal justice system.
Now, I realize that this would only get us something like 1% to 1.5% of the amount of money we need to cover the shortfall. But every little bit gets us closer to closing the gap and we cannot simply lop fifteen billion dollars out of any particular part of the budget as a practical matter. So there can be no sacred cows, and we need to make unpleasant cuts and yes, the proposal is an unpleasant one for me to make. The pain involved here is less than is involved in a large number of other available options. Capital punishment exists for retributive and specific-deterrent purposes, not for general deterrence, so there would be no appreciable public safety impact.
Oh, by the way, the Governor can do this himself. With the stroke of his pen and without any review by the courts or the Legislature, he can use his Constitutional commutation power and lift at least that much burden off the justice system and its budget.
Bear in mind, I’m only suggesting that we suspend imposing capital punishment. When the state gets more money again in the future, I would advocate reinstating that facet of the criminal justice system because it is clearly what the people of the state would prefer to have in place.
Death as punishment is expensive; life imprisonment is cheaper. I’ve never disputed that point with advocates of abolishing the death penalty. But that is not a moral argument against capital punishment, it is an economic argument. Because we face desperate economic pressure in Sacramento, we Californians simply can’t afford the death penalty right now.