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El Pais, Spain

Death Penalty is Expensive



By Yolanda Monge

Projections show that by 2050 California will have sent another 700 prisoners to death row and that over 500 will die of old age or natural causes before they can be executed. Since 1978, 21 inmates have committed suicide while awaiting death and 57 have died of natural causes.

Translated By Eugenia Lucchelli

1 November 2012

Edited by Kyrstie Lane


Spain - El Pais - Original Article (Spanish)

Not immoral, expensive. In California, activist groups that hope that next Tuesday, Nov. 6, voters will reject the death penalty in a referendum. They are basing their campaigns not on moral terms but on economic ones. If, instead of condemning prisoners to capital punishment, they were given life imprisonment without parole, the state's treasury would save $130 million a year, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office, an independent advisory body. A 2011 study from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has found that the death penalty has cost California $4 billion since it was nationally reinstated in 1976.

Contrary to what many in favor of capital punishment believe, the method is both expensive and inefficient. Those sentenced to the death penalty wait an average of five years before they are assigned a lawyer to appeal their sentence before the Supreme Court and then another 12 years for another lawyer to handle the formal request for a federal judge to examine the legality of the case of the convicted. All in all, California's Supreme Court spends a third of its time managing resources of death sentences, according to Jeanne Woodford, one of the main defenders of Proposition 34 and the former warden of San Quentin State Prison, where she supervised four executions.

The public opinion on death penalty has been changing since its return to the penal codes in the mid-seventies. In the last 10 years, five states have abolished it, bringing the number of states that do not use it to 17 – plus the District of Columbia – compared to 33 that do, including the federal government and the U.S. Army. The polls on California’s Prop 34 for abolishing the death penalty say that 42 percent of voters who will head to the polls will support the measure, versus 45 percent who will reject it, showing a decline in this latter group since the last survey, which yielded a figure of 51 percent. The rest claim to be undecided.

California has 724 people, 19 of whom are women, on death row. It is the state with the highest number of people sentenced to capital punishment, followed by Florida with 407 and Texas with 308. In the last six years not a single one of them has been executed, after the controversy about the use of the lethal injection and the suffering that it brought the inmates. Since 1976, only 13 people have had their lives claimed in this way, according to data from the Death Penalty Information Center. Over 1,300 have been legally killed by the state since 1976.

On death row in California, 44 prisoners have been waiting for over three decades for their appointment with death as imposed by the state. Douglas Stankewitz is the oldest. He is now 54 years old and came to San Quentin at age 20. Stankewitz has had 12 lawyers so far and court records show over 600 appeals or motions since 1991, though he was convicted in 1978. "The death penalty is a joke," the inmate told Reuters in an interview last week in San Quentin. "They can't kill me because the system is messed up so bad."

Projections show that by 2050 California will have sent another 700 prisoners to death row and that over 500 will die of old age or natural causes before they can be executed. Since 1978, 21 inmates have committed suicide while awaiting death and 57 have died of natural causes. 13 have exhausted all possible appeals and now have only death.

Those in favor of Proposition 34 and the end of the death penalty in California claim that serving life without parole would cost around $12 million a year, which is nothing compared to the current $130 million – some sources put this figure as high as $144 million – which is a convincing argument in times of budget crisis. Official figures from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation placed the annual cost per prisoner at $55,000, without taking into account his crimes or sentence.

Critics – including three former governors – say that maintaining the death penalty has nothing to do with the economy but rather with justice. Former governor Gray Davis believes that you have to stand with "the families of crime victims who have suffered incredible pain at the hands of violent criminals." For the vast majority of these families, the death of the culprit who took away a loved one means being able to turn a new page. However, there are some who, despite having been in favor, now reject it. Dion Wilson wished fiercely that the killer of her husband would be convicted with the maximum sentence. When that happened, it “didn't work…It didn't change anything, I didn't feel better," said Mrs. Wilson.



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