Monday, May 18, 2009

Can We Afford the Death Penalty?

My colleague Elisabeth Semel (Director of Berkeley Law's death penalty clinic) raises some troubling questions about California's dysfunctional death penalty on the oped page of the SacBee. Lis highlights the perversity of watching California spends millions to maintain a system that whatever its theoretical benefits has contributed so little to our security or prosperity (death penalty supporters should note that execution has "resolved" only about a dozen cases since the penalty was restored by constitutional amendment in 1978 at an overall cost in the billions), while it gets ready to gut its already anemic education, law enforcement (as opposed to corrections), and social service budget.

Californians are all too familiar with the fact that while we rank 47th in the nation in per-pupil public school spending on a cost-adjusted basis, we are first in what we pay for prisons and on the administration of the death penalty. California is housing so many people on death row that it plans to build a new facility. The price of construction is $400 million and, over 20 years, taxpayers will pay $1 billion in operating costs.

Lis also reminds us of some distinguishing features of our golden state government in its executioner mode. Take for example the lethal injection protocol. Litigation over the method used to chemically kill people in California has been going on for some years even after a Supreme Court decision acknowledging the real possibility of excruciatingly painful torture to prisoners if this execution methodology is flawed. Lis' clinic has been directly involved in that litigation (something that gives those of us on the Berkeley Law faculty something to be very proud of) but the point she raises in the oped is the role of secrecy in government's approach.

It took more than three years of litigation, which the state lost repeatedly, before the attorney general's office conceded that the execution protocol must be open to public scrutiny.

Indeed, throughout the legal challenges to California's method of lethal injection, the governor, the attorney general and the Corrections Department unswervingly opposed any disclosures.

Just as with our federal government and the "war on terror," our state government finds the "war on crime" (of which capital punishment is the symbolic equivalent of nuclear weapons) an irrepressible temptation to dictatorial rule in the name of protecting the people against their darkest fears.

As Lis well appreciates, it is these temptations and fears we can no longer afford

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