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Is The Cost Of The Death Penalty Too High For California?

Inside a Level 4 inmate's cell at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility.
Angela Carone
Inside a Level 4 inmate's cell at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility.
Is The Cost Of The Death Penalty Too High For California?
In a state facing a multi-billion dollar budget deficit -- one lawmaker says the cost of capital punishment is too high for Californians.

State Senator Loni Hancock says the state simply can't afford to try, incarcerate and defend the state through the appeals process and she's introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty. Right now there are more than 700 prisoners on California's death row and according to a recently published law review, most will wait some 20 years for their case to be resolved. The Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review found it cost California taxpayers $144 million annually to provide housing, health care and legal representation to condemned inmates. It also determined it cost $4 billion in state and federal funds to administer the death penalty in California.

There are nearly 40 inmates from San Diego County on death row. You may remember the case of a Chula Vista couple, Ivan and Veronica Gonzales, they became the first couple in the state to be sentenced to death for the torture and murder of their 4-year-old niece. Just last month the state Supreme Court upheld Veronica Gonzales' death sentence, she's been on death row for over a decade.


California State Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland), introduced a proposed ballot measure to abolish the death penalty in California.

Ron Cottingham, President, Peace Officers Research Association of California, he opposes bill saying criminals will not have the fear of facing death for killing an officer.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: The man who wrote California's death penalty law more than 30†years ago now supports repealing it. And voters could have a chance to rethink the law if a bill making its way through the state legislature right now is successful. It may be true that you can't put a price on justice. But is justice being served by California's death penalty? We'd like to know what you think. 1-888-895-5727. We have with us state Senator Loni Hancock from Oakland. Thank you so much for joining us.

HANCOCK: You're welcome.

ST. JOHN: Senator Hancock sponsored a bill, SB490, that would ask California voters next year if they want to abolish the death penalty. Just before we go into the reasons, I want to bring this home, and mention the fact that we do have 40 San Diegans on death row right now, in one case, a Chula Vista couple, Ivan and Veronica Gonzalez became the first couple in the state to be sentenced to death for the torture and murder of their four-year-old niece. Because of the appeals process, they have been on death row for over a decade. That's just one example. So tell us, Senator Hancock, about the costs involved in death penalty cases. And why you introduced this bill.

HANCOCK: Well, Allison, I introduced the bill because I chair a policy committee on public safety in the Senate, and I chair the budget committee on prisons and courts. And I also sit on the budget committee, and I watched the really terrible budget cuts that we made, budget cuts that will mean fewer police officers on the streets, keeping our streets and communities save, fewer spaces in our colleges for the students that graduate from our high schools, less money for education. And right at the same time judge authorure alar con, who is a senior judge in California released a report saying that the death penalty in California is an expensive failure. Since 1978, when the death penalty was instituted in California, exactly 13 people have been executed.

ST. JOHN: So you've had to make some pretty difficult decisions in this last month with that California budget. And the reason that you've put this on -- you started this legislation is because you would like to save money.

HANCOCK: Replace the death penalty with life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Tell us exactly what's in the bill. Upon what are we looking at here?

HANCOCK: That's what the bill does. The bill replaces the death penalty with life imprisonment in a maximum security California state prison without the possibility of parole. These death penalty crimes are horrible crimes. The people need to be put away who do those things so they can never hurt anyone again. And I will tell you that life in a maximum security California state prison is no piece of cake. It is a real and very, very serious punishment for these serious crimes. However, if we do that, the state will save about a hundred and $85†million a year. And that also -- that is about what we cut higher education this year. So we have to ask ourselves, we could use that money for education, for keeping police officers who are being laid off in many cities, out in the community, solving crimes and keeping us save. It is public safety. How do we use our very, very scarce tax dollars?

ST. JOHN: That's the question, isn't it? I'd like to put out the call again. Do you believe keeping the death penalty as a deterrent is worth it, whatever the cost? 1-888-895-5727. We also have on the line with us today Ron Cottingham, who's president of the peace officers' research association of California. And he opposes the bill. Thanks so much for joining us.

COTTINGHAM: Thank you for inviting me on.

ST. JOHN: Tell us what what are your concerns about this bill? How do you feel it would compromise the safety of law enforcement officers?

COTTINGHAM: We firmly believe that one of the things that actually protects us on the job is the fact that there is a death penalty for killing a peace officer, a firefighter, or first responder in the performance of our duties. It causes -- we still have officers that are killed, we still have officers that are -- some have even been assassinated. A couple years ago, officer Bassant was assassinated by a juvenile from quite a distance. The --

ST. JOHN: That's a good local example. But I guess I would ask you --

COTTINGHAM: We do feel that there are situations where our life could be taken, but the fact that they at least pause long enough to think about the fact that there's a death penalty, and utmate sentence, that is prevents these things from happening. But how do you look at the mother whose child has been kidnapped, brutally raped and murdered some place, which does happen, and tell them that that child's life is not worth the same thing? The other issue is, as far as the money, we think there are other ways to pear down the money. Most of the money, in the same -- the hundred and 85 million a year, and I'm not sure where they get that number. Because you look at the 714 people that are currently on death row, and it's the approximate cost of $90,000 a year to house them, that's $64†million a year to house them. And that's the punishment they get. At least every day, they sit in that prison cell and have to think about the fact that they may be put to death. If they are on there for life without possibility of parole, they are getting three meals a day, housing, complete medical care, all required by the institution. And they don't have to worry about anything happening to them.

ST. JOHN: Okay, you've raised some really good points there, Ron. Senator Hancock, would you care to respond to the issue of the money, how much it actually costs?

HANCOCK: Yeah. Those figures come right out of judge alar con's report that was recently released. And also from the commission on the fair administration of justice, which put out a report in 2008. I think they're very modest statistics. But you know, I honor our police officers and the work that they do. And I'm looking forward to talking more with them about these issues, so that they'll move forward. The research that I've seen says that a criminal, especially a person that is so deranged as to murder or torture, does not ask themselves will I get life imprisonment without parole or will I get the death sense. They ask, will I get caught? Will I get away with this? Now, right now, 46% of the murderers in California go unsolved every year. So one of the family members of a victim testified at our hearing on the bill saying her brother had never been -- her brother was murdered and the murderer was never caught. And she said I would like that money to go to making sure that these people who kill are apprehended. And if they're put away for life imprisonment for the rest of their lives, I will reach closure and know that justice has been done. What isn't justice is to have spent in the last 33†years that we had the death penalty, 13 people executed, 18 committed suicide, 55 died of natural causes, and 714 are sitting on death row costing hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

ST. JOHN: The figures are pretty interesting. 1-888-895-5727. And Keith is on the line from San Diego. Thanks so much for joining us, Keith. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. My question is concerning the appeals process. Why does she think the appeals process will end if it's changed from the death penalty to a life without parole? I don't understand why.

ST. JOHN: Okay, Senator Hancock, that is a good question. Maybe there would still be the same amount of expensive appeals even if it was life without parole.

HANCOCK: Actually, there would not. A death penalty trial itself costs up to 20 times more than a life imprisonment trial. That is because typically you will have two lawyers, you will have more investigators. Because the taking of a life is so serious, all of that is pretty much man dated. Then there are a series of institutionally protected appeals, both at the state level and then at the federal level, which you would not have in a case of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. So that in fact, I was talking to a prosecutor in my county over the weekend who said that he doesn't charge the death penalty very much because you request get a conviction of murder in a trial in 1 or 2†months. The person is sent away for life, and it's over. If you charge a person with the death penalty, you know there's going to be appeal after appeal. And there aren't enough qualified lawyers to take all the appeals. So what happens is you can go 10 or 15†years before a court appointed lawyer is even available.

ST. JOHN: Which is -- which is why, in fact, we've seen, for example, this Chula Vista couple who have been on death row for more than ten years. We're speaking with California state Senator lone Hancock who sponsored a bill that would ask California voters next year if they would abolish the death penalty.

HANCOCK: Well, replace is with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

ST. JOHN: That's a key question. And and Ron Cottingham who is president of the peace officers' research association of California is also with us. And I just wanted to ask you, Ron, as to whether there's any hard evidence that this, the death penalty is actually a deterrent of people killing not just police officers but anybody. Is there any hard evidence you can quote us?

COTTINGHAM: Well, it's actually very hard to put hard evidence together, something that is conjecture. But I know in a conversation that I had years ago with Hansmy, former U.S. attorney general, he said they believed they proved that there is a deterrence effect to the death penalty. Let me get back to the question of the appeal process. Right now, life without possibility of parole is a lesser sentence for the death penalty. And when you offer that to a suspect, that they can plea out or go to a trial without the possibility of parole, a lot of times they jump at that. If you look in San Diego, John gardener, he made a deal to expose where the body of amber DuBois was, and the family of Chelsea king acquiesced to that, and he pleas out, gets life without the possibility of parole. You remove the death penalty, and the new pinnacle becomes life without the possibility of parole. That's -- yes, it's hard to say that you won't have some of the same appeal processes put in place for now sending somebody to life without possibility of parole because that's now the new pinnacle, the highest sentence you can get. The other thing about life without possibility of parole.

ST. JOHN: We just have a minute here.

COTTINGHAM: It's no longer sacrosanct, no longer the sacred penalty that people think it is because right now in the legislature for California, there is a bill, SB9, to alter life without possibility of parole for juveniles who are in there for being a principle to a murder in California. They can apply for a resentencing hearing. So I don't know that I trust our legislature to leave life without possibility of parole alone for adults.

ST. JOHN: You think this is the thin end of the wedge. 1-888-895-5727. I'd like to squeeze in another call from Rebecca from Rancho PeÒasquitos. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. I'm calling because I'm responding to the argument that -- mentioning about the mother of the murder victim, and what gets told to her about the person who killed her child. And I think that's an unfair argument because our prison system and our legal system isn't about retribution. It's about deterrence, and it's about making the streets saver. So it's sort of a cheap shot to play the sympathy card, and it cheapens our legal system.

ST. JOHN: How about responding to that, Senator Hancock?

HANCOCK: I think that we have to ask now in California what will make us saver. Police on the streets, teachers in the classrooms, or lawyers in court rooms? And I would point out, Allison, that this bill would simply put on the ballot for the voters to decide how they want to spend their money. With the very limited tax dollars that we have. And would it make sense, given our experience of the death penalty, as an expensive failure, to replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

ST. JOHN: It's a pretty stiff, tall order to get a majority of California abs voting for that next year, considering that 70% of Californians voted for the death penalty just last year. Do you think --

HANCOCK: Well, that was a pole. Nobody voted for it.

ST. JOHN: Right.

HANCOCK: Particularly.

ST. JOHN: I just wondered whether you feel like perhaps the budget cuts that are just being voted on now will start to bite so much that by next year, people will start to reconsider.

HANCOCK: I think people realize difficult choices must be made. And in 1978, when the death penalty was instituted, we had a surplus in our budget. Now we're cutting public safety, police officers, we're cutting education. We're cutting environmental protection, we're closing parks and libraries and recreation centers. Now is the time when we need to ask these questions of -- we did it, and in 33†years, exactly 33 people were executed. At that rate, the 714 people now on death row are probably mostly dying of old age.

ST. JOHN: What is the next step before your bill?

HANCOCK: The bill will be heard in the assembly appropriations committee in August.

ST. JOHN: Okay. I'd like to thank you both very much for joining us. It's such a difficult topic. And I'm sure we'll be hearing a lot more about it, especially if your bill bass passes, and it goes to the voters. Ron cotting ham, president of the peace officers research associationing I'd like to thank you for putting your opinionof here.

COTTINGHAM: The California budget has been about $83†billion a year for the last 33†years, that brings us to a total of about $2.64†trillion in California budget. The three billion that was spent on executing the death penalty is a drop in the bucket.

MAUREEN ST. JOHN: Okay. That's a good point.

A. I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. To the average person, three billion seems like quite a bit. But it's true. You have to balance the whole picture and think about what your values are also when you consider this issue. So Senator lone Hancock, thank you so much for being with us also.

HANCOCK: You're very welcome.

ST. JOHN: Okay.

COTTINGHAM: Thank you very much.