California State Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) recently introduced Senate Bill (SB) 490, which seeks to abolish the death penalty in California. SB 490 will provide the voters a direct opportunity to end a broken method of punishment by abolishing the death penalty. This is the first time that the California Legislature has considered the issue of capital punishment since the current statute was enacted in 1978.
SB 490 would abolish the death penalty and instead make the maximum punishment life without the possibility of parole. In June, before this bill went to the Assembly Committee on Public Safety, Equal Justice Society (EJS) wrote a policy letter in support of this bill’s overarching goal of ending the death penalty because of its fiscal importance and impact on racial justice. While we have problems with the notion of permanent imprisonment, this bill is a step in the right direction.
The bill was approved by the Assembly Committee on Public Safety earlier this month and it is now moving to the Assembly Committee on Appropriations and, hopefully, to the floor before the end of the legislative term. Several polls show that there is support for ending the death penalty.
EJS knows this bill is necessary because it will save taxpayer dollars and prioritize funding where it is most vital. SB 490 will save taxpayer dollars by eliminating the cost of the death penalty system. A recent study by Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon and Paula Mitchell found that it costs California an estimated $184 million per year to keep more than 700 people on death row pointing out that only 13 criminals had been executed in the last 33 years.
California cannot continue to fund a lengthy and expensive process in these dire financial times. SB 490 will allow California to save $1 billion in five years. This savings will allow California to spend money in areas where it is most vital. The County of Los Angeles has denied overtime compensation to homicide investigators and last year over $50 million was cut from the Victims Compensation Fund. The City of Oakland laid off police officers while 45 percent of homicides statewide continue to be unsolved. Spending money on the death penalty instead of investing in police officers, investigators, and courts, is a bad use of our limited funds.
Furthermore, this bill furthers a vision of ensuring fair and consistent application of the law without racial bias. Defendants are three to four more times likely to be sentenced to die in cases where the victim is White than in cases where the victim is African American or Latino. Also, African Americans and Latinos are over-represented on death row. Spending money on a system that perpetuates racial discrimination denies Californians the right to a fair and consistent application of our laws and criminal sentences. Eliminating the death penalty is a necessary step towards ensuring that Californians are not executed based on racial biases and inconsistent decision making.
SB 490 will save money, prioritize community safety, and improve our criminal justice system. SB 490 is necessary and will make California a stronger state. We encourage you to voice your support and urge legislators to pass SB 490.