Death-penalty reform needed

Panel finds system is completely dysfunctional

To understand just how messed up California’s death-penalty system is, consider this: More people sentenced to death have died of natural causes than have been executed.

Capital punishment simply isn’t working in California. That’s the conclusion of a report issued last week by the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, a group appointed by the state Senate to take a close look at the system for the first time since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978.

For a variety of reasons, the commission found, death-penalty appeals can take 30 years or more—the longest time between conviction and execution in the nation. Only 13 people have been executed since 1978, and they spent, on average, 17.2 years on death row—each at an annual cost $92,000 higher than comparable quarters at a maximum-security prison.

The right to appeal is essential to justice. The public insists on it in order to avoid executing an innocent person. And experience has shown that mistakes happen: Indeed, federal courts have ordered new trials in 38 of 54 death-penalty appeals, a 70 percent error rate typically due to ineffective legal representation.

There simply aren’t enough judges to hear the appeals in a timely manner, the commission found. One of two things needs to happen: Either the state must come up with more money—an additional $95 million on top of the $137 million currently budgeted—to handle the appeals, or it must drastically change or even eliminate the death penalty.

One alternative is to reduce the number of “special circumstances” that make criminals eligible for the death penalty. There are 21 of them, and they collectively make 87 percent of all convicted first-degree murderers eligible for the death penalty—and, of course, the endless appeals that come with that sentence. Reducing the number to five, the commission stated, would reserve execution for the worst of the worst and save $100 million annually.

The second alternative is to replace the death penalty with life without possibility of parole. That would save the state even more money, and it would eliminate the risk of executing an innocent person.

It is now up to the Legislature and the public to decide what to do. The options are clear: Either spend the money to make the current death-penalty system work, reform it or do away with altogether.