Prop. 34 Abolishing the death penalty: Cost is a red herring, proponents using trickery, emotion

Proposition 34 is not the honest, fair or appropriate way to decide an issue as profound as the death penalty. Polls since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978 have indicated that the majority of California residents want it. So opponents have changed the discussion to focus on the cost of capital punishment and have made inaccurate, emotional appeals. Cost is a red herring — an emotional appeal. Don’t fall for this trickery.

If one is truly concerned about the costs of the death penalty, why isn’t there an effort or discussion to reduce them? The answer is proponents just want to eliminate the death penalty and will use whatever vehicle possible to achieve that goal.

The costs are impossible to calculate. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation admits this, too. However, most of the money would be spent anyway if the maximum penalty was life without possibility of parole (LWOP): investigation, trial, appeals, housing in prison.

Police officers investigate all crimes, regardless of whether they qualify for the death penalty. Costs are guided by the complexity of the crime, not the severity. Many multiple killings are not that complex to investigate. On the other hand, white-collar crimes are very complex and costly to investigate.

Trial costs may be slightly higher for death penalty cases due to the potentially longer sentencing hearing and jury selection. But a lengthy and costly trial is going to occur regardless of whether LWOP or the death penalty is sought.

Both death and LWOP cases cost a lot and drag on for years. Appeals are slightly longer with death penalty cases, but 100 percent of LWOP and non-LWOP murders are appealed, almost all to state and federal courts. In both cases, appeal costs are high mainly to pay attorney fees. Defense and appellate attorneys relentlessly manipulate the appeals process to drag it on for years and years.

It is absurd to even engage the question of housing without considering the perverse and ironic twist: It’s cheaper to keep somebody locked up, fed, guarded, with 100 percent of their needs (including medical) paid for by the state for 30, 40, or 50 years than it is to execute them.

We do not need a death row in San Quentin for approximately 720 men. In a state prison system with more than 130,000 inmates and almost 40,000 life prisoners, surely we could put these few hundred death penalty inmates in the general prison population. Changing only one sentence of the code would accomplish this.

Lastly and equally sinister is the emotional appeal that $100 million that would have been spent on death penalty cases will be spent instead to solve rape and murder cases. This is a misleading lie. This one-time money is payola and comes directly out of the California general fund. If proponents were so sure there would be savings, why not create a fund and make it revenue-neutral? Or appropriate $100 million to help local police departments?

The attorney general gets $100 million to distribute to anyone she deems appropriate among police departments in 58 counties. Think politics will be involved? At a time when our governor has the proverbial tax gun to our heads regarding his proposition to raise taxes, the Prop. 34 proponents must manipulate the discussion — they don’t want to tell you the money comes from the general fund.

The death penalty is too profound an issue to be reduced to shady cost arguments in a time of fiscal emergency. The moral, public safety and retribution issues of the death penalty should be the guides.

LWOP is not final and may not mean life in prison. Previous LWOP defendants have been released and have reoffended. Prop. 34 does not bar clemency nor contemplate the possibility of future laws and political change. Killers sentenced to LWOP could get out of prison.

We can agree prison is a horrible life, but inmates can communicate with the outside, work in jail, read, love and even have hope. For our most heinous criminals who killed multiple people, who lived lives of crime, it is more than they deserve.

However you feel regarding the death penalty, vote on Proposition 34 based on the morality and what criminals and victims and society deserve. Do not be manipulated by the shameless politics of our California ballot propositions.

Matthew Golde is a senior deputy district attorney heading the Juvenile Division for Alameda County.