Editor's Note: New life for death penalty

Written by Richard Wiens, The Triplicate July 19, 2011 08:25 pm

It’s possible to agree with someone’s description of a problem and completely disagree with that person’s solution.

Case in point: State Sen. Loni Hancock has proposed a bill to terminate California’s death penalty. She points to a new report published in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review that documents the extraordinary price to taxpayers in the Golden State for maintaining the death penalty.

That price tag is $4 billion since 1978, or $308 million per person executed (a total of 13). Meanwhile, 54 Death Row inmates died of natural causes and 18 by suicide — they’ve executed themselves more thoroughly than the state has managed.

During the same period juries sent almost 800 people to Death Row, so obviously in the minds of their peers plenty of people deserve the ultimate punishment. None has gotten it since 2006 due to a dispute over the state’s lethal-injection protocol.

Hancock, a Berkely Democrat, issued this statement: “California’s Death Row is the largest and most costly in the United States. It is not helping to protect our state; it is helping to bankrupt us.”

Here’s another solution: Streamline the costly appeals process so that a condemned person gets one thorough review of the sentence. Make sure that review includes any DNA evidence that might indicate the jury erred. If the sentence stands up, carry out the execution immediately, no further appeals allowed.

People get sentenced to death because they have already done the same to their victims. They haven’t just stolen property or assaulted people — crimes in which victim recovery is possible. They have ended the lives of innocent people — an irrevocable offense. If jurors find the crime merits capital punishment, grant the defendant the aforementioned review, then carry out the sentence as mercifully as the state can manage.

That may still be a more expensive process than letting murderers rot in prison for the rest of their lives. But it would be a lot cheaper than the current absurdity of endless appeals, and it would be worth it for two reasons:

• There is no recidivism among the executed. Death does deter future crimes by inmates who may otherwise kill someone else while in prison or even escape.

• As Debra Saunders pointed out in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle, even the current possibility of the death penalty has a role in plea bargains. To avoid it, murderers will sometimes agree to plead guilty to life in prison without the chance of parole — perhaps avoiding a costly trial. If that becomes the new harshest sentence possible, prosecutors may have to agree to lesser sentences for heinous criminals or else take them to trials that could have been avoided.