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Death By Government In California Wastes Money

Dec 14, 2007
Aside from the obvious costs to society and its collective morality, there are major financial considerations associated with bringing the death penalty to those convicted of capital crimes. According to a recent Los Angeles Times study, based on eleven executions spread over 27 years in California, state and federal taxpayers pay $250 million per execution.

Further cost breakdowns have taxpayers paying more than $114 million a year beyond the cost of simply imprisoning the convicts. This figure does not include the millions of dollars in additional court costs for post-conviction hearings in state and federal courts. Approximately $57.5 million annually, or $90,000 more per year goes to housing each inmate on death row rather than in the general prison population.

The California Attorney General is believed to spend another $11 million, or 15% of his annual budget, on death penalty cases. The California Supreme Court spends nearly $12 million on appointed counsel for death row inmates. The federal court system spends over $12 million on defending death row inmates in federal court. The costs associated with the offices of county district attorneys for the prosecution of capital cases is estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars each year. The office of the State Public Defender and the Habeas Corpus Resource Center spend another $22.3 million on defense for indigent defendants facing death.

Of course, there are those who would argue that there is no need for the kind of system - with its lengthy and complex judicial process for capital cases - that is presently set up under the Constitution. But these people would be mistaken. A process like this is necessary to assure that men and women are not executed for crimes they are innocent of. Constitutionally mandated safeguards are required to provide, among other things:

* Juries with clear sentencing guidelines, resulting in explicit provisions regarding mitigating and aggravating circumstances.

* Defendants with two trials - the first to determine his or her guilt or innocence, and if found guilty, a second trial to determine whether or not they should receive a death sentence.

* Defendants sentenced to death with oversight protection in the form of automatic, mandatory appeals to the California Supreme Court.

Yet, with these and other protections, there is still a strong risk innocents will be executed. That's why alternatives to death by government, such as mandatory minimums for all capital crimes, should be seriously considered. Under such a system, the very worst offenders, with the most aggravating of circumstances, could be given life in prison without the possibility of parole. This would save vast sums of tax dollars since it costs so much less to house an inmate for life than to pay for a capital case, its appeals, and related costs.

Those convicts who are physically and mentally capable of working could then perform jobs with a portion of their earnings going toward the cost of their incarceration, with more earnings earmarked for the victims and their families. This would not only save more taxpayer dollars, but would allow for punishment and restitution. If it is ultimately determined that the convict is innocent, they would still be alive to reclaim their freedom.

This type of system would enable the government to permanently segregate society's worst criminals from the population in general and to punish them without committing state-sanctioned murder. The freed up funds could be reinvested in our communities by generating better crime prevention measures. Safer communities could be created through better education, mental health care, drug and alcohol treatment, after-school programs, and extra police officers to work within the communities. Society would sustain the additional benefits associated with extending life-enhancing measurements rather than expanding the pain and suffering associated with bringing death to one of its own.
About the Author
Michael Mehas is a writer, attorney and associate producer of the 2007 film Alpha Dog. His extensive research for the film became the book Stolen Boy, a fictionalized account of the youngest person on the FBI's Most Wanted list. Visit Stolen Boy
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