Friday, February 13, 2015

California's Death Penalty, Like Pennsylvania's, Is "Ineffective, Unjust And Expensive" (Only Moreso)

Governor Tom Wolf has imposed a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania pending review of a task force report, stating that capital punishment “has been proven to be ineffective, unjust, and expensive."  Pennsylvania has 186 inmates on death row, and has executed three men since the death penalty was reinstated.  Former federal judge Timothy K. Lewis, who consulted with the Governor regarding the power to impose a moratorium stated that "at a minimum, we must take a step back to examine the effectiveness of a system fraught with racial disparity, constant reversals, and the infinite warehousing of prisoners who await a punishment that hasn't been imposed in our State in 15 years."

California has strikingly similar problems but on a far larger scale. Death sentences are more likely to be imposed not based on the severity of the crime but on race, county and the effectiveness of defense counsel. Approximately 750 men and women languish on death row for decades, costing taxpayers billions of dollars. There have been 13 executions since the reinstatement of our death penalty in 1977, and none since 2006. 

One difference from Pennsylvania is that California's scheme has been extensively studied and its dysfunction conclusively established.  In 2008, the bipartisan California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice (CCFAJ) issued its report which found California's death penalty is “plagued with excessive delay.” According to CCFAJ's report, the lapse of time from sentence of death to execution constitutes the longest delay of any death penalty state and “most California death sentences are actually sentences of lifetime incarceration.  The defendant will die in prison before he or she is ever executed.”  At bottom there are just too many cases and not enough qualified lawyers to handle them.

Those findings were made seven years ago and the problems have only worsened.  More recently, U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney held in one capital case that the administration of California's death penalty is irrevocably dysfunctional, resulting in systemic delays in which only the "random few" are executed in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  (This ruling is currently under appeal.)  Of the over 900 people that have been sentenced to death, 13 have been executed, 94 have died of other causes.  The process for reviewing their death sentences takes an average of 25 years and is getting longer -- delays, as the court found, that are inherent in the system and not the fault of inmates themselves.

In 2011, an extensive study headed Judge Arthur Alarcon determined that California's death penalty system has cost taxpayers roughly $4 billion "to fund a dysfunctional death penalty system."  But despite these vast expenditures, the current Chief Justice of the State of California
Tani Cantil-Sakauye acknowledged, the death penalty is not effective and fixing its problems would require "structural changes" that the State cannot afford.

Governor Wolf joins the governors of Washington, Oregon and Colorado who, recognizing the inherent flaws in their capital punishment systems, have issued moratoriums in recent years.  Eighteen other states have abolished the death penalty outright.  It is well past time that California follows suit and replaces the death penalty with a more effective, just, less costly -- and more humane -- system.


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