Thursday, 10 January 2008
Who is accountable for this broken system, what are we doing to repair it,
and is it really worth the price?
These are just some of the questions that the California Commission on the
Fair Administration of Justice should be asking as it begins to examine
California's broken death penalty system. The Commission will hold the 1st
of 3 hearings today, January 10. The same day, Gov. Schwarzenegger
releases his plan to deal with states crippling $14 billion budget
deficit. The Commission and the governor must come to terms with the
spiraling costs we pay to maintain an unfair, unjust, and unnecessary
death penalty system. The question is, what are they going to do about it?
The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice was
created by the California Senate to investigate the causes of wrongful
conviction and wrongful executions, and to recommend reforms to make
California's criminal justice system just, fair, and accurate. Composed of
law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and citizens, the
Commission has already issued a series of unanimous recommendations
related to the other problems in California's criminal justice system. In
public hearings from January through March, the Commission will tackle the
many flaws in California's death penalty. Now is the time for all
Californians to start asking somechallenging questions.
Is the death penalty applied unfairly?
At the first hearing, experts will present evidence about how Californias
death penalty is unfairly applied, discussing troubling racial, ethnic,
and geographic disparities in who is sentenced to die. For example:
A person whose victim is white is 3 times more likely to be sentenced to
die than a person whose victim is African-American and 4 times more likely
than a person whose victim is Latino.
Counties with a high proportion of white residents are much more likely
to pursue the death penalty than more diverse communities.
Most California counties have abandoned the death penalty: Only 10
counties account for over 80 percent of all death sentences.
Most death penalty states have implemented some reforms to identify death
sentences that appear arbitrary and excessive, especially death sentences
that may have been influenced by race. Before New Jersey replaced the
death penalty with a sentence of death in prison, the New Jersey Supreme
Court was the national leader in the struggle against racial and ethnic
disparities in the death penalty. The New Jersey Supreme Court said this
was because of "the unique commitment of the people of New Jersey to the
elimination of racial discrimination."
It is a sad state of affairs that California, the most diverse state in
the country, has not demonstrated the same commitment. California has done
nothing at all to eliminate racial, ethnic, and geographic disparities in
its death penalty.
If we don't have the money to fix the system, what's the alternative?
Implementing reforms like New Jersey did to eliminate racial
discrimination in death sentencing will cost money, and many more reforms
are needed to California's death penalty system. For example, future
Commission hearings will feature testimony about such problems as
insufficient funding for defense attorneys, which means that some people
are sentenced to die because they were too poor to hire a good lawyer.
Ultimately, the Commission will need to consider how much it will cost to
implement these reforms and how much we are already paying for this broken
system. Just building the new death row facility will cost $336 million.
At the same time, Californians are being asked to tighten our belts and
limit spending on health care, education and other public programs. The
Commission needs to tell Californians the truth: We don't have the money
to fix the system. Replacing the death penalty with life without parole
will allow us to invest in effective public safety programs that will
actually help make us safer.
But what do victims want?
Survivors of murder victims are also asking questions about the utility of
the death penalty and the costs. California Crime Victims for Alternatives
to the Death Penalty, a coalition of loved ones of murder victims, has
released a series of testimonials from victims families who oppose the
death penalty. They do so for many reasons, not the least of which is that
Californias system is so deeply flawed that sitting through years of
appeals, backlogs, and reversed sentences only prolongs their suffering
and diverts resources away from programs that could actually help them
rebuild their lives.
California has paid dearly for the death penalty and has gotten nothing
but a broken, unfair, and unjust system in return. It is time to get rid
of the death penalty and spend that money on catching more killers and
preventing more murders.
(source: Natasha Minsker is an attorney with the ACLU of Northern
California who focuses on criminal justice issues; California Progress
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