Dismantle death row

The moment has arrived to eliminate the death penalty in California and, for the first time in decades, it is a goal we can accomplish.

My legislation, Senate Bill 490, would close death row and replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Last week it passed its first legislative test by a vote of 5-2 in the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

The witnesses who appeared in support of the bill were most certainly not people we think of as the usual suspects. One of them — Don Heller — was the author of the 1978 initiative that reinstituted the death penalty in California. A former prosecutor and a Republican, Heller now believes it should be eliminated. He says it has been applied unequally, that at least one possibly innocent person has been executed, and that it is not making us safer in our communities.

More striking testimony came from Jeanne Woodford, who presided over four executions as the warden of San Quentin State Prison, where she worked for almost 27 years. She called the death penalty process a “broken, costly, failed system.”

Finally, Judith Kerr testified about the heartbreaking murder of her beloved brother in 2003. “I want Bob’s killer to be apprehended and punished — I do not want someone else’s brother to be killed and I do not want to wait 25 years for the case to finally close,” she said. “Public safety would be better served by spending the money solving the 46 percent of California murders that go unsolved every year.”

Reconsidering the death penalty is particularly important at a time when the state is making heartbreaking cuts to higher education, children’s health, help for the elderly and disabled, and all the great public institutions took decades to build and that are now being allowed to wither. The fact is, the death penalty is costing us a fortune.

Since 1978, California has spent approximately $4 billion on death penalty costs and has executed only 13 people. That’s $308 million per condemned inmate. And every year it costs Californians $185 million more to maintain the 714 prisoners on death row than if they were housed in a maximum-security prison.

We aren’t being tough on crime; we’re just being tough on the taxpayer.

Those stunning figures come from a study released earlier this week by U.S. Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell. Their neutral analysis, based on previously unavailable data from the California Department of Corrections, estimates the state could save $1 billion every five years by replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole.

It might seem counterintuitive that sentencing people to death is more costly than life in prison without parole. But death penalty cases require longer trials, careful investigation, heightened security, and legal reviews mandated by both the state and federal constitutions. A death penalty trial can cost as much as 20 times more than sentencing an inmate to life without parole.

It’s more likely for a death row prisoner in California to die of illness, suicide, or old age than execution.

As a state senator, a mother, and a grandmother, I cannot justify this expense. Not when we are all tightening our belts and accepting deep cuts to education, health care, and environmental protections — cuts that diminish the life prospects for us and for generations to come.

My bill would also eliminate the risk of wrongful execution. At least 138 people across the country have been released from death row after new evidence emerged proving they were innocent.

Opponents claim that public support for the death penalty is strong in California. However, a 2011 poll released by David Binder Research found that 63 percent of likely California voters support replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment without the chance of parole. It seems that voters have had enough.

Now is the time. Eliminating the death penalty will save hundreds of millions of dollars every year. It is the right thing to do.

State Senator Loni Hancock represents the East Bay.