Wednesday, February 11, 2009

An Idea That Has Run Its Course -- Prison Population Explosion

Federal judges in California have ruled that the state must cut its prison population by 40 percent, possibly requiring the early release of 58,000 prisoners. CNN's story is here:

The court says that the prison population explosion has resulted in unsafe and unsanitary conditions that threaten the health and lives of prisoners and corrections personnel.

At the same time, California's budget crisis have led many to wonder if capital punishment is worth the cost. The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, a bipartisan group created by the State Senate, reported last summer that the death penalty process is "dysfunctional." At that time, the Los Angeles Times reported:

Although commissioners strongly disagreed on some issues, they were unanimous in concluding that the current death penalty system was failing and in agreeing that a large amount of money was needed for significant change. The report offers alternative proposals for reform.

The commission did not advocate abolishing the death penalty but did note that California could save $100 million a year if the state replaced the punishment with sentences of life in prison without possibility of parole. Death row prisoners cost more to confine, are granted more resources for appeals, have more expensive trials and usually die in prison anyway, the commission said in its 117-page report.

The full story is here:

The costs have become so staggering that even in Marin County, which stands to gain from the proposed construction of a new death row facility at San Quintin, the local paper advocates abolishing capital punishment on cost grounds:

In these times of unprecedented budget shortfalls and financial crisis, it's important to understand how the state is spending that $250 million on the death penalty:

- $117 million is for the extra costs of death row housing, attorneys for the prosecution and defense, and court costs. These are the extra expenses we pay every year to have the death penalty in California-expenses that would disappear if we replaced the death penalty with permanent imprisonment (which has no opportunity for parole), but expenses that are required as long as we have a death penalty.

- $136 million is to begin construction of a new death row facility. We are forced to build a new death row because our current facility is overcrowded and broken down. The total estimated cost for completing the project is now $400 million and the costs for running the facility are estimated at $1 billion for the first 20 years.

The full Marin Independent Journal editorial is here:

This is not just a California phenomenon. The criminal justice system in the United States is based upon the application of two ideas -- mass incarceration and capital punishment -- that have repeatedly failed to achieve the goals of rehabilitation or deterrence.

It's time for a fresh, no-holds-barred analysis of what we CAN do, after a person is proved to have broken the law, to keep our communities safe, restore the offender to a society, and heal their victims.

New ideas, anyone?

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