Prop Zero
The Starting Point for Commentary and Coverage of California Politics

The High Cost of Death Row

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    NEWSLETTERS

    He wrote California’s death penalty law, on the books since voters approved it in 1978.

    But Thursday at the Capitol, former federal prosecutor Don Heller testified that the law should be ditched, and that the more than 700 inmates on Death Row should have their sentences commuted to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

    “The death penalty does not function. It’s a colossal failure in terms of its intent,” Heller, a Sacramento attorney, tells Prop Zero. “No fiscal impact was discussed when I wrote it.”

    On the weight of his testimony, among others, the bill passed out of Public Safety Committee along party lines. Next stop: Appropriations.

    Heller’s loudest complaint is cost.

    A staff analysis of SB490, by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, says California has spent $4 billion on the death penalty since it was reinstated 33 years ago. That breaks down to $308 million for each of the 13 executions carried out since then.

    Crime victims groups are bitterly opposed to Hancock’s bill, which started out as a simple measure to strip the Inspector-General’s office of peace officer status, but was recently amended to abolish capital punishment.

    Look for a loud and raucous hearing in the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

    Keep in mind, however, that the legislature can’t ban the death penalty on its own. Voters would have to agree in the next statewide election, a high hurdle for Death Row opponents to clear.

    I’ve seen no compelling evidence that the state’s electorate is in a frame of mind to do that. Though our current fiscal crisis might change that.