On May 6th in Georgia, William Earl Lynd, 53, became the first death-row inmate executed in the U.S. in seven months. Executions have been on hold all these months while the U.S. Supreme Court decided whether or not lethal injection protocols are constitutional. In an overwhelming vote of 7-2, the Court decided they were constitutional and execution chambers in the 36 states that allow the death penalty are preparing to return to duty.
The Court’s decision, and Lynd’s execution, have provided another national platform for passionate voices to be raised over the use of death penalty. What’s interesting is how loud and zealous the voices on both sides are when we consider that the death penalty itself affects a relatively small number of people. There are 3,263 people on death row, 669 of them in California (which has by far the largest death-row population in the country). Yet, the death penalty is constantly on the front page of newspapers, the lead story on TV news, and a litmus test for many voters on which candidate they will vote for. Why is this one issue so foremost in our heads and hearts? Because when people pass laws about who should live and who should die, they are defining themselves as community. They are proclaiming their values, not through bland patriotic rhetoric, but through their deliberate actions. We know that when the government kills in war, we all have our hands on that trigger—and when they execute in peace, we all have our hands on that syringe.
So what does the death penalty say about us?
The primary purpose of the death penalty, like all laws, is to protect the innocent. Theoretically, if someone deliberately murders someone else, executing that person protects the rest of us by removing him from society, never again to be a threat. But, as always, there’s a big difference between theory and practice. While it’s true that the death penalty may protect us from the few individuals it does execute, it does not come without a price tag. What Californians have to decide is whether or not we’re paying too much for what we’re getting.
How Much Money Does the Death Penalty Cost?
Every society is on a limited budget. Therefore, priorities have to be made and every society must face some difficult choices about how to get the most protection out of each dollar. California’s current $16 billion deficit threatens to handicap or destroy many institutions designed to protect society—and to save lives. Already a $2-billion cut in school programs and health care for the poor has been approved by the Legislature.
Our hospital situation was already bad, now it can only get worse. Los Angeles County alone lost 27 acute-care hospitals between 1994 and 2004; 7 other hospitals reduced services or cancelled their mental health units. Trauma centers, which save hundreds of lives by providing immediate, specially trained medical care for life-threatening injuries, have closed throughout the state. Of L.A. County’s 23 trauma centers, 13 closed or were downgraded into emergency rooms. The Hospital Survey and Construction Act of 1946 compelled hospitals to achieve 4.5 beds per 1,000 people. In 2003, California’s ratio had dropped to 1.9 beds per 1,000.
Public schools, which protect our future by providing citizens who are competitive in the economic marketplace and educated in the needs of democracy, have also fumbled the ball. Some inner-city students go through classes without textbooks. Perhaps the greatest threat to California’s future is the fact that our students rank next to last in academic achievement in the United States. We rank 50th in the nation (including District of Columbia) in school staff to student ratio, 51st in librarians ratio; 51st in guidance counselor ratio, and 49th in teacher ratio. A 2007 study ranked California 34th in its students’ potential for success. That’s not surprising when our students test below the national average in math, science, reading, and writing. And current budget woes have caused the state to cut $4.8 billion from education and to issue pink slips to 24,000 teachers, librarians and nurses in our public schools.
While money is lacking in those areas, California has not hesitated in spending $114 million a year of taxpayers’ money on the death penalty (beyond the cost of lifetime imprisonment, and not including post-conviction hearings that cost millions more). According to a 2005 Los Angeles Times study, we pay $90,000 more a year per inmate to keep them on death row rather than in the general prison population, which adds up to $57.5 million annually. California’s Attorney General spends 15% of his annual budget ($11 million) on death penalty cases; our state Supreme Court spends $11.8 million appointing lawyers in death penalty cases; the Office of the State Public Defender and the Habeas Corpus Resource Center spend $22.3 million defending indigents in death penalty cases. A 2008 study by the ACLU of Northern California concluded that to execute all the people currently on death row will cost $4 billion more than if they had been sentenced to life imprisonment to die of disease, injury, old age. State after state has conducted cost-efficiency studies of the death penalty—most recently New Jersey, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Kansas, Tennessee, and Texas—and all have concluded that the death penalty costs significantly more than sentencing someone to Life Without Possibility of Parole (LWOPP).
Because counties that seek the death penalty must pay for the costs, many smaller counties have faced bankruptcy, reduction of social services, and/or increased taxes in order to pay for a death penalty trial. Studies indicate that putting more police officers on the streets would reduce crime and make us safer; yet, budget cuts have forced the early release of thousands of prisoners while at the same time forcing some smaller counties to reduce the number of police officers and firefighters. In 1988, Sierra County, California cut their police force in order to pay for their death penalty trials. District Attorney James Reichele explained, “If we didn't have to pay $500,000 a pop for Sacramento's murders, I'd have an investigator and the sheriff would have a couple of extra deputies and we could do some lasting good for Sierra County law enforcement. The sewage system at the courthouse is failing, a bridge collapsed, there's no county library, no county park, and we have volunteer fire and volunteer search and rescue.”
I know some will ask, “How can you put a price on justice?” and “What if it were your mother or son who’d been murdered?” Fair enough. But given the current cost of the death penalty, my family is much more at risk from not having enough police on the street, firefighters in their stations, thousands of inmates released into our communities, and from a critical lack of hospital staff. There are 7,000 deaths annually in hospitals from errors in medication, partially due to understaffing. That’s 7,000 every year versus the possibility that an inmate sentenced to LWOPP might possibly escape and kill again.