Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | September 25, 2012

Cost-benefit analyses: Vote YES on Prop 34 and Prop 36

“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

San Quentin from the Flickr photostream of terriem

Two high-profile law-and-order propositions are on the November general election ballot. Those of us who lean left of center have lots of reasons to vote yes on Proposition 34, which would end California’s death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole, and Proposition 36, which would amend California’s three-strikes law.

But you should find a cost-benefit analysis persuasive no matter where you land on the political spectrum. We simply cannot afford the current systems, which are outrageously expensive, and which do not work as intended.

If voters approve Prop 36, life sentences would be imposed on third strike offenders only if the third strike was serious or violent. It would also allow judges to resentence current inmates whose third strikes resulted in life sentences for non-violent offenses.

Currently, any new third-strike felony can result in a life sentence. Want an example? Bernice Cubie, 59, is serving a life-sentence after a third-strike felony conviction for possessing $10 worth of drugs. As Yes on 36 advocates note, “Murderers and rapists receive shorter prison sentences.”

Perhaps stories of injustice don’t pluck your heart strings. If that’s the case, let’s take a look at some cold, hard numbers. The non-partisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office says that passing Prop 36 would result in “ongoing state correctional savings of around $70 million annually, with even greater savings (up to $90 million) over the next couple of decades. These savings could vary significantly depending on future state actions.”

California’s three strikes law has been in place since 1994 and is credited, at least by some, with reducing crime in the Golden State. (Opinions differ.) Prop 36 would not repeal it. Instead, Prop 36 would tweak California’s three strikes law so that people like Bernice Cubie — who were never intended to targeted by the law — don’t become expensive lifetime incarceration burdens on the taxpayers of California.

The case is even more compelling for Prop 34, because the death penalty is even more expensive and it’s completely ineffective in deterring crime.

Prop 34 asks, “Should the death penalty be repealed and replaced with life imprisonment without possibility of parole when someone is convicted of murder with specified special circumstances?” It would apply to the 725 current death row inmates in California, replacing their death sentences with life sentences without the possibility of parole.

There are plenty of compelling ethical arguments against the death penalty. Those arguments highlight the finality of the death penalty and include debates about the immorality of the sentence and point out that it is unfairly and inconsistently applied.

However, let’s look at the cost and the ineffectiveness of death sentences. The LAO estimates that passing Prop 34 would result in “ongoing state and county criminal justice savings of about $130 million annually within a few years, which could vary by tens of millions of dollars.”

CBS News reports that California spends $184 million a year to maintain its death penalty system. What’s more, we’re spending that money for a system that doesn’t prevent crime. The Death Penalty Information Center notes, “The murder rate in states that do not have the death penalty is consistently lower than in states with the death penalty. The South, which carries out over 80 percent of the executions in the U.S., has the highest murder rate of the four regions.”

The death penalty is obscenely expensive and stunningly ineffective. It doesn’t pass even the most basic cost-benefit scrutiny. When you throw in the moral arguments against the death penalty, the case for abolishing it is overwhelming.

If Californians pass Prop 34 and Prop 36 on Nov. 6, we’ll not only do the right thing from a moral point of view, we’ll also do the right thing according to cost-benefit analyses. We can save $220 million a year with these two measures. That’s $220 million per year that could be spent on increasing public safety resources, repairing our crumbling infrastructure, or educating California’s children.

Please join me in voting Yes on Prop 34 and Prop 36.

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