Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Breaking open the empty piggy bank

By Natasha Minsker

Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Homer is so broke he breaks into his daughter’s piggy bank, only to find it full of IOUs from himself? Then again, maybe it was Home Improvement… or Family Matters. One thing’s for sure, I don’t remember that scene in The Terminator – not even the third installment. So why is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger so vividly replacing Homer Simpson in my memory of that scene?

On Wednesday, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced that he would be “borrowing” $64 million from the General Fund in order to move forward with one of his pet projects, the construction of a new death row facility at San Quentin. And $64 million is just the tip of the iceberg. Altogether, the new facility is expected to total upwards of $400 million.

That's half a million dollars per cell - roughly the cost of a nice house in the state of California.

Of course, the General Fund is virtually broke already, so our governor is borrowing against non-existent budget. And didn’t Schwarzenegger threaten that he wouldn’t sign a budget at all? Every government agency in the state is in fiscal emergency, our social safety net is in tatters, and the state is weeks away from paying state employees with IOUs.

But death row could use some sprucing up, after all.

That’s because California has by far the largest and most costly death row in the country with over 700 inmates, nearly double the closest runner up, all of whom live in a prison that pre-dates the Civil War. And its resident population keeps climbing: Some California counties are sending even more inmates to death row, ignoring the fact that nearly everyone on California's death row dies of natural causes, just like people sentenced to life without parole. Last year California sentenced more people to death than any state in the country, with Los Angeles County alone sending more people to death row than the entire state of Texas.

Those death sentences come with a steep price tag. Each one costs at least $1.1 million more than a trial seeking permanent imprisonment. But that’s just the trial cost for each death penalty prosecution paid by the county. The cost for the entire death penalty system - paid by the state’s General Fund - only mounts from there. With Constitutionally-mandated appeals, housing, and upkeep on our current dilapidated death row facility, the annual cost of California’s death penalty is $126 million per year.

Plus there’s that new death row facility at $400 million. All told, that’s $1 billion in five years.

That's the amount the Governor could save California's taxpayers if he would cut the death penalty and convert all of those costly death sentences to permanent imprisonment. All without releasing a single prisoner and ensuring swift and certain justice for murder victims and their families. Permanent imprisonment saves money, saves time, and avoids the decades of turmoil from drawn out death-penalty appeals.

So where would you like to see Governor Schwarzenegger spend that $64 million from the California budget, instead of building a new death-row facility? Post your ideas in the comments section, then Tweet the Governor and tell him how he should spend it! Tweet @Schwarzenegger Say No to Death Row! Spend #64million on [insert your preferred state program] #cabudget.

Natasha Minsker is death penalty policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

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