Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Humonetarianism: Death Penalty Edition

John Van de Kamp, former California AG, says we can't afford the death penalty

According to the final report of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, which I chaired from 2006 to 2008, the cost of a murder trial goes up by about half a million dollars if prosecutors seek the death penalty. Confinement on death row (with all the attendant security requirements) adds $90,000 per inmate per year to the normal cost of incarceration. Appeals and habeas corpus proceedings add tens of thousands more. In all, it costs $125 million a year more to prosecute and defend death penalty cases and to keep inmates on death row than it would simply to put all those people in prison for life without parole. 

Van de Kamp advocates eliminating the death penalty and commuting all death sentences in California to sentences of life without parole. 

Doing so would incapacitate some of the worst of the worst for their natural lives, and at the same time ensure that a person wrongfully convicted will not be executed. And it would save $125 million each year.

Getting rid of the death penalty would undoubtedly be a great thing for the administration of justice in California, but Life Without Parole does have its own implications. To name a few: what about all the pending appeals and habeas proceedings? How would the Corrections Department transition all those folks from death row? Would the debate over “how much” due process we think we can afford change without the morally-fraught death penalty to galvanize it? 

Reformers are taking advantage of the suddenly inflated salience of cost to the public to push for policies that were total non-starters just a year ago, but the dark side of this strategy is that there is also no willingness to implement these policies in a thoughtful, rather than merely a cost-avoidant, way. How much deeper a hole will we be in a year from now if all our decisions are made with an eye on short-term costs? 

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