Commission: California Capital Punishment System Nearing Collapse

We’ve reported in the past on problems of prison crowding around the nation, as well as the questionable benefits of get-tough policies that allow for stricter and longer sentences for criminals. Earlier this month, a report released by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice highlighted yet another problem plaguing the US prison system: death row.

According to the LA Times, the CCFAJ’s report was the first comprehensive review of California’s death row system since the death penalty was reinstated by voters 30 years ago. The 22 members of the commission reportedly included police officers, criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors and victim advocates. Despite the diversity of this group, the conclusion that change is needed was unanimous.

While suggests that the central problem is a shortage of defense lawyers to represent death row inmates (such lawyers must be specially trained, have certain levels of experience and be willing to tackle cases that can last more than a decade), the Times mentioned several other problems imbedded in California’s system.

Evidently, hundreds of the 673 inmates currently on death row don’t have access to defense lawyers to appeal their convictions or present constitutional challenges to the court. The state’s Supreme Court, which is the only court currently permitted to hear appeals of death penalty cases, is apparently so backlogged that only one appeal for a conviction after 1997 has been resolved.

On top of that, sources indicate that the state’s compensation for defense lawyers who take on death penalty appeals is below federal standards.

The Times reports that nationally, the average time an inmate spends on death row before being executed is 12 years; in California, the average wait is double that, 20-25 years. Couple this with about 20 new death row inmates added to the queue annually and increased costs for keeping those on death row (who are granted greater resources to appeal, cost more to keep and have pricier trials), and it’s no wonder the state’s system is a mess.

It seems California currently spends about $138 million annually on death row costs, and has only actually executed 13 people in the last 30 years. Stats like these help illustrate why the commission’s report evidently called the system “close to collapse” after decades of “delay and dysfunction.”

So what is California going to do about this mess?

Some commission members reportedly suggested eliminating the death penalty altogether, or at least limiting the number of crimes that can lead to capital punishment (currently, the total is 21). Those who argue to abolish the death penalty figure that the state could save $100 million annually by sentencing prisoners to life without parole rather than death.

But proponents of the death penalty are apparently more interested in allowing lower courts to hear appeals and pumping money into the prison system to address the problems.

No matter which side eventually wins out, though, the commission members agree that the state will have to put about $100 million annually into the capital punishment system in order to fix the current issues, according to sources.

Unfortunately, the state’s budgetary deficit may not allow for such an infusion. The effect this report will ultimately have on California’s capital punishment system remains to be seen; the current problems with the system, though, are glaringly obvious.