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$4 Billion Since 1978 -- Time to Cut California's Death Penalty

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New data in a study to be released next week on California's death penalty has revealed that the price tag for death is even higher than we thought: $4 billion since 1978. Put another way, we spend $184 million more per year for death penalty inmates than we do on those sentenced to life without the chance of parole. All told, California is on track to spend $1 billion on the death penalty over the next five years.

The new estimate is the result of a three-year comprehensive examination of state, federal, and local expenditures on California's death penalty by Arthur Alarcón, a federal judge on the 9th Circuit, and Paula Mitchell, a Loyola Law School professor. Mercury News called the study "highly credible" and that it made the case for replacing the death penalty "nearly indisputable." Not that anyone was disputing the wasteful spending before -- except for that guy who comments on all my blogs. By now, most folks get that the death penalty wastes hundreds of millions of our dwindling state dollars. Only now we know that it actually wastes billions.

$4 billion and what did that get us? A grand total of 13 executions. That's over $300 million per execution above the cost of life without parole.

Meanwhile, nearly half of all murders in California go unsolved. How many dangerous individuals could we have locked up permanently and taken off our streets over the last 33 years if we hadn't executed those 13 people? How many children and families could have accessed the education and health services they needed, or how many students could have had the opportunity to attend college?

Looking ahead, the study predicts another $9 billion will be spent by 2030. Unless of course Gov. Brown just cuts the death penalty spending already -- and it really is that easy.

The governor has the authority to convert all 714 of California's death sentences to life without the possibility of parole, saving California $1 billion over five years without releasing a single prisoner. Grassroots organizations and thousands of individuals around the state have been asking the governor to do just that since the day he took office, and these new figures are giving the idea more traction with those looking for budget fixes, like CNNMoney.

And here's the kicker: California voters agree. Polls as recent as April 2011 show that Californians support cutting the death penalty [PDF]. A full 63% of likely voters favor the governor converting all existing death sentences to life without parole, with the requirement that prisoners work and pay restitution into the Victims' Compensation Fund (death row inmates are not currently required to work). That support spans party and geographic lines -- majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all across the state agree. It's hard not to when there's four billion reasons.

The case is closed on the death penalty. There's no question that California's death penalty is dysfunctional and that the only thing it's killing is our economy. The experts know it, the voters know it, and our elected leaders need to acknowledge it. Tell Jerry Brown to give up the charade of the death penalty and to give back the hundreds of millions of dollars law enforcement and education leaders need to actually keep our families safe.

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