Who Pays the Price for California’s Death Penalty? All of Us

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As lawmakers attend to the task of fixing California’s $24 billion budget hole, our state continues to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on a dysfunctional death penalty.

The governor has proposed a number of bold cuts, which include the elimination of General Fund support for CalWORKs, Healthy Families, Cal Grants, drug treatment programs, our struggling schools and mental health programs. This puts every Californian at risk. These budget cuts hit the programs that we need most to prevent violent crime: funding for struggling schools, drug treatment, mental health services and assistance to the working poor.

We are discussing severe cuts to the very programs that help reduce violent crime and without them, violent crime and recidivism may well increase. We are cutting programs that actually do result in fewer murders and reduce violent crime by protecting and assisting the most vulnerable: poor children. The impact of these cuts will last for a generation or more. Meanwhile, we will waste more than $250 million this year alone on an ineffective death penalty, and it’s a price we can no longer afford.

In this unprecedented financial crisis, it is important to understand how the state will spend $250 million on the death penalty this year.

$117 million is for the extra costs of death row housing, attorneys for the prosecution and defense, and court costs. These are the extra expenses we pay every year to have the death penalty in California — expenses that would disappear if we replaced the death penalty with permanent imprisonment (which has no opportunity for parole).

Another $136 million is earmarked to begin construction of a new death row facility. We are forced to build a new death row because our current facility is overcrowded and broken down. The total estimated cost for completing the project is now $400 million, and the costs for running the facility are estimated at $1 billion for the first 20 years.

While we waste more than $250 million on a death penalty that everyone agrees is flawed, we are slashing funding for education and vital services for the neediest Californians. But we have a choice: if we simply replace the failing death penalty with condemning the worst offenders to permanent imprisonment, we could restore funding for many of these programs.

In tight budget times, we must all make tough choices. This choice should be easy. Do we pay $250 million this year for a death penalty that does no good, or do we provide food and health care to poor children, treatment to drug addicts and the mentally ill, support for struggling families and protection for the elderly? For Californians who want to live in safe and healthy communities, the answer is clear. The time has come to replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment.

Elected to the Senate in 2008, Senator Mark Leno represents the 3rd District, which includes Marin, and portions of San Francisco and Sonoma Counties. He is the first openly gay man elected to the State Senate, and one of the first two openly gay men ever elected to the Assembly. Prior to his election to the Senate, he served six years in the State Assembly and four and a half years on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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