Some interesting internal conversations occur when there’s tension between two competing beliefs inside any one person’s head. For the many Californians who support both the death penalty and smaller government, there’s such a moment of truth coming.
When capital punishment was restored by the US Supreme Court in 1976, the Court majority cited deterrence and retribution as legitimate social interests that might be served by its use. In our fair state, death penalty laws were invalidated by the CA Supreme Court in 1972 and 1976, and reinstated each time by legislation and popular vote.
Public support aside, there are significant arguments against it. For many, the taking of life is wrong, whether it’s done by a murderer or by the State. Others point to later exoneration of 138 citizens previously sentenced to death – the one punishment that cannot be undone. There’s also ample evidence that capital punishment is ordered disproportionately against minority defendants: 60% of 714 condemned prisoners in CA are black or Hispanic, including 10 of the 18 men convicted in Contra Costa County. And it’s a hotly debated question whether a significant deterrent effect has been demonstrated since the 1970s.
Still, some 70% of Californians favor capital punishment. Recent studies revealing the ruinous cost of its implementation, however, have led to legislative stirring in Sacramento. Supporters may soon be put to another pro-or-con choice.
According to that research and as widely reported in the general press, the death penalty has cost Californians a whopping $308 million for each execution; the care-and-feeding of death row inmates annually taxes us $184 million more than if those inmates were serving life without parole. Further, the cheapest death penalty trial costs the government over one million dollars more than most expensive life-without-parole case. Other directly-related costs abound.
These stunning numbers have energized opponents to develop new legislation to invalidate capital punishment in CA. If passed in this era of belt-tightening, another popular vote will ensue.
So, as we all must ask ourselves: is capital punishment right – and is it a penalty we can still afford? In other words, taxpayers: what’s retribution worth?