Last Monday I opened the paper and discovered that I might soon be out of a job. Unlike the hundreds of teachers who received pink slips this year, I was filled with delight. As an employee of a California state entity that represents death row inmates in their appeals, I am excited to see abolishing the death penalty being introduced onto the ballot.
Setting aside the typical tenets of a death penalty argument: the moral aspects of state killing, the risk of innocent people being executed, execution wrought with error imposed by improperly trained guards, or the debate over whether or not the death penalty even fulfills its purpose as a deterrent, the capital punishment controversies have come to focus on the cost. According to a recent study that prompted Sen. Loni Hancock of Berkeley to introduce the bill to abolish the death penalty in California, capital punishment in the state has cost taxpayers over 4 billion dollars since it was reenacted in 1978. In that time, California public schools have continued to take financial hits resulting in draconian funding cuts for classroom programs, huge increases in class size, fewer school supplies for children to use, and numerous teacher layoffs.
Last spring Governor Brown announced that he had decided not to move forward with building a new death row to house the ever-growing population of inmates. The governor stated that it would be “unconscionable to earmark $365 million for a new and improved death row facility while making severe cuts to education and programs that serve the most vulnerable among us.” Applying this logic to the study’s results, which showed that California taxpayers spend $184 million per year on capital punishment, it seems equally unconscionable to continue to throw taxpayer money at having a death penalty when our schools and social programs have been hit so hard.
While many argue that we should reduce spending on capital cases, that is simply not an option. Public defenders offices have taken extreme cuts, which have reduced their resources and ability to provide adequate assistance for the accused. After a conviction, a defendant is given appellate counsel who may spend many more years trying to correct the deficiencies and errors that occurred during the trial, by properly investigating the crime, conducting necessary tests that trial counsel lacked resources to complete, consulting essential experts, and making appropriate legal arguments. Without these constitutionally required steps the penal system would lose an important safeguard against injustice.
Hancock’s bill seeks to abolish the death penalty and convert the death sentences of those already on death row to life without a possibility or parole. While this is also an extremely harsh sentence, it has essentially the same effect as the death penalty. A vast number of death row prisoners, over four times as many as have been executed, have died of natural causes while awaiting execution since its reenactment.
Speaking as a mother of a second grader in a California public school and an employee of a state agency that represents death row inmates, I’d much rather be looking for a new job than see my daughter denied a proper public education.