With all eyes on the presidential election tonight, it’s easy to forget that many states are simultaneously holding referenda on other major issues. One of the most note-worthy of these is California’s proposition 34. If passed, the measure would abolish the death penalty in a state that currently has more than ¼ of the nation’s condemned prisoners. Over 725 inmates would be shifted from death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Passage of the measure would save the state over $100 million a year for the first few years and $130 million a year after that. Most of that money is currently being spent on lengthy trials for those at risk of the death penalty. Such a serious penalty means a longer trial and mandatory appeals. More money is spent on lawyers, experts, and investigators, and special prison complexes for death row inmates cost almost three times as much as standard prison accommodation. Much of the money saved is to go back into the justice system – $100 million is to be devoted to investigating the state’s startling high percentage of unsolved rapes (56 percent) and murders (46 percent).
California has executed only 13 prisoners out of the more than 800 sentenced to the death penalty since the measure was adopted by popular vote in 1978. A further 84 inmates have died while on death row. The relatively low number of completed executions is surprising given that the state has spent $4 billion on the system since its inception. That amounts to roughly $308 million per execution – costly for a state that has experienced significant financial shortfalls in recent years.