Their report showed that since the current death-penalty statute was enacted in 1978, taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion on only 13 executions, or roughly $308 million per execution. As of 2009, prosecuting death-penalty cases cost upwards of $184 million more each year than life-without-parole cases. Housing, health care, and legal representation for California’s current death-row population of 714—the largest in the country—account for $144 million in annual extra costs. If juries continue to send an average of 20 convicts to San Quentin’s death row each year, and executions continue at the present rate, by 2030 the ranks of the condemned will have swelled to more than 1,000, and California’s taxpayers will have spent $9 billion to execute a total of 23 inmates.
“I was stunned by the report,” said Loni Hancock, a Democratic state senator from Oakland and a member of the senate budget committee. Hancock had spent the previous five months agonizing over deep cuts to California’s general budget, and “it broke my heart,” she said. “That’s when I decided the time had come for Californians to reconsider the death penalty.”
In late June, Hancock introduced SB 490, the first bill to propose replacing death sentences with no-parole life imprisonment, only to withdraw it eight weeks later when she realized she didn’t have the votes to get it out of committee. Now anti-death-penalty activists are taking their case to the people. Buoyed by the Alarcón-Mitchell report and the media coverage it garnered, California Taxpayers for Justice kicked off a ballot-initiative drive in October to get the required 504,760 voter signatures in time for the 2012 general election.
Law-enforcement groups want to keep the penalty in place. “We share the frustration of death-penalty opponents,” says Cory Salzillo, the legislative director of the California District Attorneys Association. “But we should pursue remedies to fix the problems rather than repeal it altogether.” (Hancock’s own stepson, Casey Bates, is known as an aggressive prosecutor in Alameda County’s District Attorney’s office, with several murder convictions under his belt. He declined to comment on SB 490, but Hancock told me: “We haven’t talked about it.”) To many advocates for victims, the initiatives are an insult. “You can’t take justice away from the victims’ families, not after everything they’ve gone through,” contends Harriet Salarno, the president of Crime Victims United of California, which she founded after her daughter’s murder. “No-parole life sentences will never give them the closure they seek. Sure, the death penalty is costly, but that’s because it’s not executed efficiently. Look at Texas and Virginia. They limit the years of appeals. We should copy them.”
In Texas, where the appeals process has been streamlined, nine executions were carried out in the first eight months of this year, and in Virginia, it took a relatively speedy seven years from the arrest of the Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad to his execution in 2009. Other states—Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, and Montana—have been struggling to reform or abolish their capital-punishment systems.