The cost of the death penalty

Pub date August 14, 2012

OPINION As a retired police officer, I believe deeply in safety and justice. As a father and a person who has devoted more than 30 years to working with young people, I know what our kids need to become positive members of our communities. I’ve seen the positive changes that come from resources, attention and education. I’ve seen it as a precinct service officer in East Harlem, New York, as a police officer and lieutenant in the Oakland Unified School District.

I can no longer stand by while we tell young people that we care about them while simultaneously undermining their future and safety with poor use of our resources. I can’t stay silent as we talk about tough times and budget cuts, but spend billions on death row inmates who will actually die in prison of illness or old age instead of execution. It’s not right, and it’s not effective.

California’s death penalty is suffocating our resources. A June 2011 study by former death-penalty prosecutor and federal judge Arthur L. Alarcón and law professor Paula Mitchell found that California has spent $4 billion dollars on the death penalty since 1978 and that death-penalty trials are 20 times more expensive than trials seeking a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

That money is wasted, because the system is so dysfunctional that those death row inmates actually end up serving the equivalent of life without the possibility of parole anyway. California is on track to spend $1 billion dollars in the next five years on the death penalty — all of this while risking the execution of an innocent person.

These irresponsible budget choices are undermining the safety of California families. Despite a horrific unsolved murder rate of 46 percent, we fire homicide investigators and take police off the streets. Even though a shocking 56 percent of reported rapes go unsolved, rape kits all over the state remain untested on shelves because of lack of funding. Budget cuts for crime labs and police mean evidence that can help find and convict criminals is sitting on a shelf while we waste millions on a death row that is broken beyond repair.

We also undermine crime prevention by firing teachers and taking away violence intervention programs — two things I know for sure keep kids out of a life of crime.

Proposition 34 will help us put our priorities into action by replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. That will save California $130 million dollars a year. Prop. 34 would redirect a portion of those savings for three years to solve open murder and rape cases. By solving more cases and bringing more criminals to justice, we can keep our families and communities safer and hold these people accountable for what they have done.

Murderers deserve tough punishment. But I can tell you from my career as a police officer — lifetime incarceration in prison with no chance of parole is real punishment.

There is no fixing the death penalty, but Prop. 34 will help us fix the funding for our priorities. That is justice that works for young people, and for all of us.

Steve Fajardo is a former police officer.