The death penalty is on the ballot in California in November, in the form of Proposition 34. While death penalty discussions usually involve the topic of morality, there is little of that in the proposition’s language. Instead, Prop. 34 focuses on money. Specifically, what would be saved by abolishing the death penalty — billions of dollars, according to Jeanne Woodford, executive director of Death Penalty Focus. She explained the number on KQED’s Forum this morning.
“The figure [PDF] actually came from Justice Alarcon, who is the 9th circuit court judge,” she said, further explaining that Alarcon supports the death penalty and his then-law clerk Paula Mitchell, who co-wrote the analysis, does not. They studied the issues for five years, Woodford said. “They concluded that we have spent $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978, and if we continue with the death penalty we will spend up to another $7 billion on the death penalty by 2050.”
In addition, Woodford pointed to the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office report which estimates savings of $130 million annually within a few years of passage of Proposition 34 — with the caveat that its estimate could vary by tens of millions of dollars.
At first glance, Woodford is an unusual spokesperson for overturning the death penalty. She served as warden at San Quentin State Prison, which houses California’s death row, and she’s the former director of the California Department of Corrections. Woodford spent 26 years total at San Quentin, having started in 1978, the year California reinstated the death penalty. She says the death penalty is an “illusion” — just 13 people have been executed since 1978, and another 729 people are on death row.
Kurt Scheidegger is the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. The savings estimates are sorely lacking, he says, because they do not take health costs into account. “You have the cost of incarcerating people and you have the cost of medical care which has become a huge portion of the Department of Corrections budget,” he said “and that portion gets larger as people gets older. If you give the people of California an iron-clad guarantee that these murderers will never be released, that means you’re going to keep them to the end of their natural lives and, as we all know, the cost of health care escalates sharply as we get older.”
Then there are the costs to victims’ families, Woodford argued. The years of litigation that comes with a death penalty conviction are draining. ”They spend years and years reliving these cases over and over again,” Woodford said, “and then so many of these cases are overturned, a high percentage. … It’s really so harmful, so hurtful to victims’ families.”
But Scheidegger counters that the years wasted are reason for reform not repeal. He insists that much of the litigation has to do with the death penalty sentence itself, not guilt. ”We spend far too time much examining the decision whether to sentence him to death or not,” Scheidegger said. “That’s a decision that needs to be reviewed carefully, but it only needs to be examined once. So we could simply eliminate all these additional appeals, reserving them exclusively for issues of guilt and save a huge amount of money, save a huge amount of time which saves the incarceration costs as well and we can also deliver justice effectively in these cases.”
Prop. 34 requires $100 million to be directed over four years to law enforcement agencies for the investigation of murder and rape cases. About half of all murder and rape cases are not solved in California. Woodford believes ending the death penalty would save money and that the money is well-spent on solving cases.
Again, Scheidegger countered that law enforcement agencies are unlikely to get additional dollars. He says the legislature will reduce general fund money to law enforcement by whatever amount Prop. 34 sends in.
You can listen to all their arguments here, on Forum: