08/03/2011 01:36 pm ET | Updated Oct 03, 2011

SB 490: Let the Voters Make an Informed Decision

No one is surprised to learn that California's death penalty is a broken and dysfunctional system. After all, you don't have to go far in California to find any government bureaucracy that's broken or dysfunctional -- it's finding a functional government program that might take a while. The question is: how do we fix it? How do we punish the worst criminals in a way that maximizes public safety without bankrupting the budget?

A new bill in the California State Assembly, SB 490, has a shockingly simple solution: give voters the facts and let the voters decide. (The shock is that it's taken 30 years to figure that out.)

In 1978, when California voters first reinstated the death penalty, no one knew how much it would cost. No one knew how long executions would take, how many attorneys would be required to prosecute and defend the appeals, how large a facility would be needed to house death row inmates -- in short, no one knew what a big, expensive mess it would be.

Thirty-three years later, we know. We now know that the death penalty is a hollow promise to victims' family members. These families wait 25 years -- on average -- for resolution on a death sentence. 99% of those sentenced to die are never executed and die from old age or sickness instead.

And we know from empirical research that the death penalty costs vastly more than the alternative of life without parole -- $184 million every year. We also know from common sense that public safety improves when money is used for real solutions, like law enforcement officers on the street or violence prevention and education in schools.

Don Heller is the man behind the 1978 initiative to reinstate the death penalty. The Don Heller of 2011, however, acknowledges that he simply didn't know enough 33 years ago. No one in California, including him, had the experience or foresight to predict such a dismal failure. In 2011, even Don Heller supports SB 490 to replace the death penalty. He thinks California voters will too -- once they know the facts.

SB 490 will give voters the option of replacing the death penalty with life without parole. If passed, it will save us $1 billion over the next five years. It's often assumed that voters strongly support the death penalty, but people are rarely asked if they really think it's worth a billion dollars. With the real-world costs and real-world solutions laid plainly on the table, California voters must decide once and for all if the death penalty is really the most efficient use of those dollars.

Here are some other things California could invest in. For the cost of one execution ($308 million), California taxpayers could afford to:

• Provide a complete K-12 education, including food and transportation, for 2,865 kids.
• Pay for a four-year Cal State education for 14,569 college students.
• Cover the average middle-income cost of raising 1,385 children from birth to age 18.
• Sign Alexander Rodriguez to the Dodgers for 11.2 years.

For the annual cost of the death penalty system ($184 million per year), California taxpayers could afford to:

• Hire 3,579 new police officers.
• Hire 3,407 new fire fighters.
• Shut down and remodel the 405 freeway a la "Carmageddon" every five years.

Sign the petition to tell the California legislature it's time the people had all the facts to make an informed decision about the death penalty.