I find myself somewhat speechless at the entire computer-generated display, complete with euphemisms, so I’ll just express puzzlement over the construction plans in the face of a $400,000,000 deficit. I prefer the New Mexico solution.
This is not a California issue, but it concerns all of us. May 19 has been declared a Global Day of Action for Troy Davis. Whatever you think about the death penalty, please read more about this case, and if you have a feeling, as I do, that something very wrong is about to happen, let’s do something.
The nation’s largest Death Row now houses 665 men. Only 10 inmates were held there when the suit was filed shortly after capital punishment was reinstated in California in 1977.
Fama said the inmates’ original complaints were dirty and decrepit housing and a system that classified all condemned prisoners as security risks who had to be confined to their cells nearly 24 hours a day.
The 1980 consent decree required prison officials to evaluate condemned inmates individually and allow the less-dangerous ones the same exercise time and visiting privileges as non-Death Row inmates. It also required improvements in food, medical care, cells, showers and access to a law library.
As the Death Row population multiplied, the state periodically sought to end court supervision. But a series of reports by judicially appointed monitors over the years found a variety of violations, including a flawed cell assignment system that led to violent clashes and disciplinary rules that sent offenders to “strip cells” wearing only a pair of shorts.
One thing that strikes me as interesting is that the improvement in conditions consists, in some respects, of making the Death Row experience more like “regular” life imprisonment. Does this reflect a realistic understanding that Death Row has become no more than a very lengthy imprisonment period, with a possible (but not certain) ending by execution? The time between sentencing and execution has gradually increased since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977. San Quentin Death Row currently houses 665 men; between 1977 and 2008, 14 men were executed. The recent trend we have documented, of cost-driven moratoria on the death penalty, is complicated by the costs of death penalty-related litigation (Brandon Garrett of Virginia Law School presented an interesting work on this, in its early stages, at the Conference for Empirical Legal Studies last year); one possible scenario is that, at some point, Death Row will quietly become a thing of the past, and conditions (as well as inmates) will be indistinguishable from those pertaining to life without parole.
The New York Times reports on a trend we’ve already seen here a couple of times: penal reform and punitive measures being abandoned not on their merits, but because of their costs. The article is not California-specific; the picture you see is from Virginia, and the data in the piece come from Maryland.
Death penalty opponents say they still face an uphill battle, but they are pleased to have allies raising the economic argument.
Efforts to repeal the death penalty are part of a broader trend in which states are trying to cut the costs of being tough on crime. Virginia and at least four other states, for example, are considering releasing nonviolent offenders early to reduce costs.
The additional cost of confining an inmate to death row, as compared to the maximum security prisons where those sentenced to life without possibility of parole ordinarily serve their sentences, is $90,000 per year per inmate. With California’s current death row population of 670, that accounts for $63.3 million annually.
Two legislators from opposing parties and with opposite views on the death penalty joined Tuesday to propose cutting off funding for a new $395 million Death Row at San Quentin, calling it a boondoggle that a financially strapped state can’t afford.
“The Death Row expansion is a bottomless money pit,” said state Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater (Merced County).
“We should use this opportunity, with the state running out of cash, to step back and rethink this project,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who joined Denham at a news conference in front of the aging Marin County prison. He referred to the project as a “Cadillac Death Row” and said many condemned inmates could be safely housed at other prisons during their decades of appeals.
A few thoughts:
1) We may have finally arrived to a place where supporters and opponents of the Death Penalty are faced with the realities of a prison system that, regardless of its moral merits, cannot be financially tolerated.
2) At a time when emergency discourse is the required preface to every public discussion, we no longer, perhaps, have the leisure to contemplate what sort of legal system produces such a huge number of people on Death Row in the first place, and the prevalence of this emergency discourse might, yet again, postpone that important discussion.
3) Compare and contrast this to the previous post about the axing of the CJC budget. Perhaps we have finally come to a point in which we can no longer have discussions about the merits of correctional initiatives, only about their costs.