Why I Changed My Mind to Oppose the Death Penalty

For 30 years I supported the death penalty. I felt that the state should make a strong statement that those who commit the most heinous crimes receive the ultimate penalty. This view was reinforced by the almost universal support from law enforcement. The people who most often deal with the worst criminals understand that evil exists in a small percentage of the population. As a public official, their opinion on this issue counted for a lot with me, as did my own sense of justice.

We can, and should, continue to debate the morality of the death penalty, but over the past several years, it has become clear to me that, in practice, our death penalty system is failing and should be abolished. I've come to this conclusion for three reasons.

It costs too much: The state of California has spent $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978. That's $308 million for each of the 13 executions carried out between then and now. We spend $90,000 more each year to house someone on death row than in regular prison. That cost adds up, as most death row inmates in California stay there for over 25 years. The bottom line -- replacing the death penalty with lifetime imprisonment without parole would save the state over $140 million a year. There are better ways to spend this money.

It's broken: In the past 40 years, over 150 people have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the United States. People of color are at least twice as likely as Caucasians to be sentenced to death for comparable crimes. Even in our age of advanced medicine, we have not figured out how to administer the death penalty appropriately. A botched execution in Oklahoma just last year took 45 minutes, during which time the prisoner cried out and convulsed in pain before dying of a heart attack. We must ensure that those who commit the worst offenses are caught and punished, and are never allowed to threaten the public again. But we also must do a better job of living up to the principles enshrined in our Constitution, including the prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment."

It doesn't make us safer: There is no evidence that the death penalty helps prevent crime. Researchers have been looking for evidence for decades, including in the 19 states and 140 countries that have banned the death penalty. They haven't found it. What they have found is people are less likely to commit crime the more they worry that they will get caught. In other words, the money we spend on death row would be better spent on ensuring law enforcement officers have the resources they need to prevent, investigate and solve crimes.

I know many Californians of goodwill continue to believe the death penalty is a just punishment for those who commit the most heinous offenses. In a democracy, though, we must make hard choices about how to spend our money. Having served as California's Chief Fiscal Officer, I know that we often don't have enough money to make critical investments in the future of our state. The evidence is compelling -- the death penalty is simply not worth the cost. The money we spend on our failed death penalty program in California could pay for 1,500 new police officers, or 3,000 new teachers, or the cost of pre-K for 20,000 children. These are the type of investments we need to make to provide security and opportunity for the next generation of Californians.

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