What began as a simple question has evolved into a lengthy study about California’s death penalty, the results of which would be startlingly were it not for the fact that most people have known or at least suspected this problem all along.
Why is it that 87 percent of first-degree murders in California could be prosecuted as death-penalty case–but most are not? A state commission that attempt to discover whether race has played an inappropriate determining factor as to who gets the death penalty and who does not. The answer is that that data is not available. However, the commission, led by former Attorney General John Van de Kamp is now calling on legislation that requires prosecutors to collect and report all information on their decisions whether to seek the death penalty.
Here is what we do know about the death penalty in California and these findings are chilling.
- Of 12,000 first-degree murders now in prison, only 5.6 percent of them have been sentenced to death.
- Five times the percentage of blacks are on death row to their actual share of the state population. The national average is three to one.
- Since 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated, death sentences have been disproportionate for black defendants to their overall population, to the rate of homicide convictions, to victim data, and to sentencing patterns of other states.
- Blacks make up just under one-quarter of those arrested for homicide, yet blacks make up 36 percent of the current death row population. Compare that even to Latinos and you find, Latinos make up 46 percent of those arrested for homicide but only 20 percent of the current death row population.
- It turns out, one of the biggest determinants of whether one faces the death penalty is the race of the victim. 59% of victims in death penalty cases are white. However, only 22 percent of homicide victims are white. This is true across the country–those who murder white victims are most likely to be sentenced to death nationally.
One possible explanation arises at the law enforcement level, where some have suggested that police investigators work harder to collect evidence in cases involving the deaths of white victims.
In fact this but one problem cited in the 116 page report from the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.
One of the other stunning findings is that the state spends an additional $117 million per year as the result of just 673 people on death row. That translates to nearly $175,000 per inmate, per year. On June 10th, the California State Auditor revealed that a proposed new death row facility will cost at least $395 million to build, and more than $1 billion to operate over the next 20 years.
The reports also faults the state for failing to provide adequate council.
“The appointment and performance of qualified trial counsel, and the resources available to counsel to adequately investigate and prepare the case, are subjects of serious concern in the administration of California’s death penalty law.”
Naturally groups such as the ACLU who have long fought against the death penalty for precisely the reasons highlighted in the report have had a strong reaction to this report.
Several groups have suggested that the death penalty actually makes it more difficult to fight crime because it saps resources that otherwise could be used toward more effective violence prevention programs.
Natasha Minsker from the ACLU who the Vanguard interviewed regarding the Topete Case a few weeks ago issued a statement on the ACLU website.
“We are pleased that the Commission has revealed the honest truth about the excessively high costs of California’s death penalty, and the many costly reforms that are still needed… But we are very disappointed that the Commission failed to call for immediate action to remedy racial and ethnic disparities in death sentencing in this state. Californians expect and demand a criminal justice system that treats all people equally, regardless of race and class… We cannot continue to ignore the evidence that our death penalty is not fairly applied.”
If there is a weakness in this report, it is that the commission did not provide for any remedies toward the immediate problem of apparent racial discrepancies in the rate of death penalty convictions. Instead it focused its recommendations on more expansive data collection in order to determine why some individuals are sentenced to death but others are not.
As the Sacramento Bee reported last week, even these remedies are being opposed by police, prosecutors, victims’ representatives.
These groups claim that there is no evidence found in the report to suggest abuse by prosecutors.
“The critics also don’t want prosecutors to adopt formal, written, public policies on when they’ll seek the death penalty, as the commission has recommended. Such documents would serve primarily to create new grounds for condemned prisoners to challenge their convictions, the critics say.”
However, those critics are missing a bigger picture here. The public’s support for the death penalty has been trending downward over the last decade. States like Illinois had stopped executing death row inmates while reviewing their system, others like New Jersey have outright abolished the death penalty altogether.
New Jersey’s death penalty study “recommended that the death penalty be abolished and replaced with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.”
High costs of prosecuting death penalty cases, lack of evidence that the death penalty deters future crime, in addition to discrepancies in the racial component of death row inmates, have led many to begin questioning the effectiveness and ethical nature of a practice when alternatives such as life imprisonment without parole have been shown to be just as effective at getting dangerous criminals off the streets and away from places where they pose a threat to the public.
Unfortunately, as the ACLU points out, the California commission stopped short of the recommendations by the New Jersey Death Penalty study. However, these findings may renew efforts to either reform or abolish the death penalty in California in the coming years.
—Doug Paul Davis reporting