In Maryland: Victims, Not Vengeance?

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley

Maryland Governor O’Malley Joins Pastors’ March on Annapolis to repeal the death penalty in Maryland in 2009.

Passage of Maryland’s death penalty repeal bill in 2013 would be historic, and not only because it would ban capital punishment in that state.  Though of course ending executions in Maryland would be great, the 2013 repeal bill would be more historic because of what it does for the families of victims.

Since capital punishment costs more in Maryland than the alternatives (as it does in California, or any other state where the question has been studied), savings are to be had, and Maryland’s death penalty repeal bill appropriates some of those savings to support the real needs of victims’ families.  Many families who lose a loved one (often times a breadwinner) to murder simply can’t afford the bare necessities like counseling, travel to court dates and hearings, or even funeral costs.

Redirecting funds wasted on capital punishment to provide for these basic needs respects both the rights the prisoner (who will not be subjected to the ultimate cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment) and the rights of the victim (whose loved ones will be supported in ways that truly matter).  Here’s hoping Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley will lead his state to passing this groundbreaking legislation, invigorating the USA’s march to abolition, while setting a new standard for how criminal justice can be more humane and do more for victims’ families.

Connecticut Death Penalty Abolished! (California Next?)

death penalty abolished in connecticut

With his signature, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed into law the repeal of Connecticut’s death penalty, making his state the 17th, and the 5th in the last 5 years, to do away with capital punishment.  The law is not retroactive, so 11 men remain on Connecticut’s death row.

It is surely a sign of progress for the death penalty abolition movement that such a success could occur in the midst of contentious and escalating election year politics.  Previous legislative repeal victories have occurred during the more sedate odd-numbered years (New Jersey, 2007; New Mexico, 2009, Illinois, 2011).

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California's Big Death Penalty Moment

death penalty californiaBy this time next year, the death penalty could be a thing of the past in California. Find out more and get involved now.  It is a very big deal.

They say everything is bigger in Texas, but, in reality, even when it comes to the death penalty, many of the most important things are actually bigger in California.  California’s death row is more than twice the size of the one in Texas, and last year Los Angeles County alone accounted for as many death sentences (8) as the entire Lone Star State. (California sentenced 28 people to death statewide.)

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California: 2012 Ballot Initiative To Replace Death Penalty

In California, on average, 46% of murders and 56% of rapes go unsolved each year.  For victims and their families, and for the cause of public safety, these numbers are profoundly disturbing.

A new ballot initiative (changing the law in California often requires a direct public referendum) aims to do something about this, by redirecting funds wasted on the death penalty ($184 million per year according to a recent study), to local police and prosecutors to ensure that more crimes actually get solved. Since 1978, there have been 13 executions in California, at a cost of $308 million per execution.  In 2009 alone, the best year of the decade for solving murders, there were 722 unsolved homicides.

Bringing killers and rapists to justice is obviously very important for victims and their families, and is also clearly vital to public safety. And whatever deterrent value you might think the death penalty has (probably none), it is vastly overshadowed by the reality that, now, if you commit murder in California, you have an almost 50/50 chance of never getting caught at all.

The proposed initiative would also require those convicted of murder to work in prison and provide restitution to victims’ families.   And, importantly, it would end California’s shameful association with the notorious human rights abuse of capital punishment.

If this initiative gets on the ballot and voters approve it in November 2012, California will finally escape from the financial (and human rights) black hole that is the death penalty, and will be free to focus its resources more effectively on public safety and on the real needs of victims.

The California Abolition Bill Is Moving

against the death penaltyEarlier this summer, California State Senator Lori Hancock introduced a death penalty repeal bill (SB-490), after a study found that her state spends the exorbitant amount of $184 million dollars annually to keep capital punishment on the books.

The bill has already passed its first committee hurdle, and will have another hearing next week.

On July 5, speaking before the Assembly Public Safety Committee was former prosecutor Donald Heller, who authored California’s death penalty law back in 1978. He said: “I fervently believe that capital punishment should be abolished,” and he called for savings from death penalty repeal to be used to support law enforcement.

A former warden of San Quentin State Prison, Jeanne Woodford, testified that the death penalty in California is “wasteful”, “counterproductive to public safety” and “terribly unfair to the victims’ families”.

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Most Voters Prefer Alternatives to the Death Penalty

new poll demonstrates that U.S. voters don’t consider the capital punishment a wise use of their tax dollars.  It also finds that most U.S. voters don’t consider the death penalty the most appropriate punishment for murder

1,500 registered voters were surveyed for this comprehensive study of public attitudes towards the death penalty, released today by the Death Penalty Information Center.  In the poll, 61% of the voters preferred alternatives to the death penalty as the more appropriate punishments for murder.  (39% favored life without parole plus restitution for the victim’s family, 13% just life without parole, and 9% life with the possibility of parole.)

When asked about their personal budget priorities, the list was long, and the death penalty was at the bottom of it.  More pressing priorities included: emergency services, creating jobs, police and crime prevention, schools and libraries, public health care services, and roads and transportation.

Polls which only ask whether the public is for or against the death penalty usually find a majority in support of capital punishment; but it is clear that when real world alternatives are included – alternative punishments and alternative uses of government resources – that support collapses.

The poll also reveals that most voters (62%) either don’t care how their representatives vote on the death penalty, or would likely support a legislator who voted to end capital punishment in their state. So legislators now considering death penalty abolition in Illinois, and those elected officials in several other states who will be in the same boat in 2011, can take heart and safely vote to end executions.

California Spent 4 Million Dollars Trying to Kill Prisoner

One would assume that a state facing a significant financial crisis would choose to spend its resources on practical policies and beneficial projects. Why, then, did California waste $4 million in order to accomplish… nothing? Perhaps that’s unfair; the state did have a goal in mind while spending this money – executing Albert Brown.  Not an admirable goal, and, thankfully, Albert Brown is still alive and in prison.

Why not save the time, funds, and pain associated with the death penalty? As James Clark of Southern California’s ACLU suggests, replacing  the death penalty with life without parole, and requiring people in prison to work and provide restitution to victims’ families, would be a much better use of the state’s time and resources. In California, the current system costs $137 million per year; it would cost $11.5 million for a system without the death penalty. Why is the state so hell-bent on sentencing offenders in the most fiscally irresponsible way possible?

It has been nearly five years since California has put anyone to death, and thanks to a lethal injection drug’s expiration date, it would be at least next year before executions could conceivably resume. Maybe in the upcoming months California officials can be persuaded to make better use of taxpayers’ money, and will stop wasting it on these pointless efforts to kill prisoners.

Why is California Rushing to Kill Albert Brown?

California has not put anyone to death in nearly 5 years.  Litigation around the state’s lethal injection procedures has led to a de facto moratorium on executions.  But that moratorium may come to a sudden end this Wednesday, when Albert Greenwood Brown is scheduled to be killed shortly after midnight.

The legal issues surrounding California’s method of killing its prisoners have not been fully resolved, yet the state is asserting that executions should be restarted anyway.  But what for?

California has by far the nation’s largest death row, with over 700 inmates, and soaks its taxpayers for upwards of $100 million per year for the privilege of having a death penalty.  Over $800,000 was spent on a new lethal injection chamber which contains two things – a gurney and a clock.  And hundreds of millions more are going to build a new death row. Capital punishment in California (and elsewhere) is a money pit.  Millions of dollars get tossed in, but nothing good ever comes out.

California taxpayers are beginning to see the death penalty for what it is – a colossal waste of resources.  For a state that doesn’t even have a budget and is currently furloughing workers, devoting such time and energy (and money) to killing a few prisoners who are already locked up for life is not just pointless and cruel.  It also diverts scarce resources that could be directed towards proven crime prevention measures and real support for victims’ families.

At the heart of the controversy that has halted executions in California is the question of how a state can kill its prisoners in a sufficiently humane way.  Of course, there is no answer to that question, because killing prisoners is inherently inhumane.  The sooner the state of California recognizes this fact and does away with its death penalty, the sooner they will be able to focus on policies that actually do some good.

A 64 Million Dollar Question

Killing prisoners is an abuse of state power.  Even if it saved money it would still be the ultimate human rights violation.  But of course, it doesn’t save money.   The death penalty costs money.   This is especially true in California, where a study recently concluded that abolishing capital punishment would save the state over $100 million a year.  And that’s not including the hundreds of millions of dollars California needs to build a new death row.

Now comes the news that Governor Schwarzenegger intends to borrow $64 million from his state’s already depleted General Fund to keep the new death row construction going.  How else could $64 million be spent?  The ordinary Californians surveyed in this video thought first, not of yet another prison, but of education, housing for the homeless, and better transportation.

When 500 Chiefs of Police were surveyed as to “what interferes with effective law enforcement”, insufficient use of the death penalty came in dead last, with only 2% citing it as a problem.  At the top of the list for these Police Chiefs were “lack of law enforcement resources” (naturally), but also of most concern were drug/alcohol abuse, family problems/child abuse, and lack of programs for the mentally ill. 

$64 million could go a long way towards addressing these real concerns. So how does it makes sense to divert scarce resources that could improve the lives (and safety) of Californians, just to maintain an ineffective policy that violates basic human rights?

What Does Guantanamo Cost Us?

According to a recent Washington Post article, since 2001, the Pentagon has spent at least 500 million in renovating Guantanamo, in addition to approximately 150 million a year in operational costs.

Some interesting expenditures for base personnel:  volleyball court ($259,000); go-kart track ($296,000); 27 playgrounds (for a total of $3.5 million); a KFC/Taco Bell restaurant ($733,000); and a café whose renovation only cost $683,000.

Even if the amount invested does not include the annual operating costs of $150 million—which according to the White House double the amount of a comparable U.S. federal prison—it does include other costly expenditures, such as Camp 7 (13 million).

But what have torture, indefinite detention and unfair trials at Guantanamo cost in undermining human rights, the rule of law and America’s reputation and influence?

There are a million reasons to close Guantanamo right now. Especially since domestic U.S. prisons already safely hold convicted terrorists and U.S. federal courts have a far better track record than military commissions of prosecuting terrorism cases since 2001—at far less cost.