Though debate over capital punishment is primarily framed as a moral issue, an upcoming ballot measure that would eliminate California’s death penalty reveals an important sub-issue that voters should consider: the potential economic benefits of banning the death penalty.
In light of its weighty costs and negligible benefits, abolishing the death penalty by voting “yes” on Proposition 34 simply makes sense for the future of the state and its taxpayers.
Prop. 34 would replace the death penalty with a life sentence in prison with no opportunity for parole. For an increasingly struggling state economy, this makes huge financial sense. California’s death penalty is a money guzzler: A study spearheaded by U.S. Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcón revealed that the state has spent $4 billion on capital punishment and associated costs, such as increased security for inmates and legal representation in lengthy and expensive death penalty trials, since the Death Penalty Act went into effect in 1978. That comes to $184 million spent annually.
And for all its costs, the state’s death penalty is quite fruitless. In California, the average death penalty case takes 25 years from conviction to execution because of the exhaustive process of trials and delays. Many prisoners don’t even make it to the end of the process — of the 92 death row inmates who have died since 1978, dozens died while waiting for legal representation and court dates. Only 13 were actually executed. If you do the math, that’s $308 million per execution.
Not to mention, the fact that only 13 death row inmates have been executed in the last 34 years debunks the pro-death penalty claim that keeping inmates alive fills state prisons beyond their capacities. Overcrowding is a legitimate problem, but capital punishment isn’t the solution. It’s just a big investment with few returns.
Another reason to support Prop. 34 is that the estimated $1 billion it would save over the next five years could be put to better use. The ballot measure proposes the institution of the Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement for California Act, which would appropriate $100 million to update forensic technology, hire more law enforcement personnel and ultimately solve more crimes.
The purpose of law enforcement is to solve crimes and make people safer; the ultimate reason for prisons is not for punishment but for safeguarding the outside world from convicted criminals. So by draining millions of dollars from forensic laboratories and police stations, the death penalty is pragmatically counter-intuitive. The $100 million from Prop. 34’s SAFE fund, along with the money saved by eliminating capital punishment, would be more effective in fighting crime than the lethal injection of a criminal already behind bars.
Voting “no” on the measure would perpetuate a policy that spends excessive time and money on a handful of criminals already in custody, which does not improve Californians’ safety nor save them tax dollars.
Prop. 34 is an economically and pragmatically sound ballot measure. Whether or not a voter supports the death penalty from a moral standpoint, it makes little sense to throw millions of dollars at a policy that doesn’t accomplish its goals.
Adrienne Visani is an undeclared freshman.