It's Time for California to End Its Death Penalty

The second answer to the argument is: so what? If we know that capital trials are 10-20 times more expensive than non-capital murder trials, it would mean that California would have to endure 10-20 times more murder trials before the costs of those trials equaled the costs of capital trials. And even then the state would see savings because the post-conviction review process in non-capital cases is far less significant than it is for capital cases. In any event, wouldn't it be great if the police and prosecutors spent less time lobbying for capital punishment and more time prosecuting murder cases?

For me, the fight over Prop 34 is a fight about context. If voters look only at the convicted murderers whose lives will be spared, the measure will be in trouble. But if voters look beyond these condemned prisoners, if they look to the billions of dollars in savings that would accrue to all Californians through the repeal of capital punishment, then the measure has a decent chance. It's significant that Prop 34 does better in polling the more information voters are given about its benefits. It's significant because it suggests that people have an open mind on the topic, and that is always a good sign when it's time for the old to give way to the new.


I have many dear friends who live in California. Some are Republicans. Some are Democrats. But all share one immutable complaint -- taxes there are too high even as public services are cut to ease massive budget deficits. For years, I have listened to these earnest complaints without being able to muster an answer.

Now, I have one. If Californians want to do something meaningful to help reduce their public costs, if they want stop shoveling good money after bad on an unworkable state program, they should vote to end capital punishment in the Golden State. If they don't, I don't want to hear any of them complain about state taxes. Ever.

The economic case against capital punishment now is overwhelming. California simply cannot afford to spend the money it would take to do capital punishment right. Anddoing it wrong, as the above studies have shown, has exacted a terrible toll. The state can't go forward on the death penalty; the legislature won't pay for it. It can't go back on the death penalty; the Constitution does not permit it. To go sideways means more money wasted. So it has to just get out -- to end a social experiment which has failed, which cannot be fixed, and which stands today as a terrible symbol of a proud state's justice system.

There is no shame in ending a bad policy. In fact, you could argue that there would be shame only in ignoring these statistics in the name of "justice." But what is justice anyway? Is it depriving a child of a better, safer elementary school in order to pay for the additional costs of a capital trial? Is it precluding an elderly person from a needed social service because the money is being spent on death row guards? It is keeping the price of California's in-state public universities outrageously high? The ancient concept of "an eye for an eye" is attractive in the abstract. In reality, in a nation bound by constitutional rights, its costs are profound.

The murderers whose lives would be spared by Prop 34's victory are "winning" nothing but the chance to live in a cell the rest of their lives. California will not be a more dangerous place if this were to occur. It will instead be a place that has decided to spend its money on things other than capital litigation.

My laid-back Californian friends are always telling me to "let things go," to move on from the bad things in life and to focus instead upon shaping a better future. It's time now for California to just let the death penalty go, to allow the failed experiment to drift back into the mist of history, and to move on to a wiser, fairer, less expensive path.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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