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Davis, California

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Column: Paying the hangman

It seems like every week there is some new major financial problem for the state of California. Most students focus on the academic budget cuts, but there are really a whole host of other major problems.

There are budget cuts for academic and athletic departments, furloughs for state workers, public workers pensions that cannot be paid and an over-reliance on fees that nickel and dime California citizens.

A common complaint by Californians is that we spend more money on prisons than on education. It’s a peculiar argument given the completely different role that schools and prisons play in society -although I’ve had a few classes that had a prison-like quality to them. The response has been to release thousands of inmates to limit overcrowding and to cut costs. It made sense fiscally in the short term, but the consequences could have a terrible impact on society.

Unfortunately, these problems should have been addressed years ago with policies that reflected a better long-term outlook instead of a short-term, expedient one. Our problem with high prison costs has reached a dangerous tipping point, but it really has been an accumulation of decades worth of fiscally imprudent policy.

Consider the death penalty, which is a highly controversial issue that has clearly defined proponents and opponents. In 1972 the Supreme Court banned the practice entirely, but this decision was repealed in 1976 to allow states to decide proper disciplinary policy.

Since the reenactment of the death penalty in 1976, states have enacted wildly divergent policies. Some states, such as Michigan, have decided to eliminate the death penalty altogether. This means that there is currently not a single person on death row in that state, and there has not been a single execution since 1976.

Other states have gone to the opposite extreme. Texas is well known for its liberal use of capital punishment, and the numbers prove it. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Texas has executed 452 people since 1976. This accounts for about a third of the total executions in this country since that time. Texas currently has 342 people on death row.

It’s obvious where states like Texas and Michigan stand; both carry out their respective policies in ways that adhere to their laws regarding the use of capital punishment. California is quite different.

California has executed just 13 people after the national reenactment of the death penalty. What jumps out, however, is that there are currently 690 people on death row. This number is by far the highest of any other state. While some may see this as merely California’s stronger commitment to determine guilt or innocence, it is clearly a costly and inefficient way of doing business. California sentences people to death almost as much as Texas, we just don’t carry those sentences out.

Each of these inmates costs the state around $90,000 a year because they require special housing, which adds up to about $62 million a year. This doesn’t even take into consideration the impressive legal fees that are even higher than housing costs. This is especially so in California, where courts are resistant to allowing anyone being executed. This means that every year we must spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a few horrible people.

The problem with this kind of policy is that it is schizophrenic, costly and ineffective. It is really a fiscally unhealthy compromise that, coupled with other poor policy decisions, has led to the current wave of seemingly endless budget nightmares.

While by itself the cost of California’s death penalty policies could be absorbed, the amount of spending in other areas along with an urgent need to cut costs should bring this issue to the forefront.

Prison reform is badly needed. Either we need to reform our laws to make state sponsored executions more expedient, or we need to end the practice by creating new severe penalties for criminals who have committed serious atrocities.

JARRETT STEPMAN wants politicians to focus on important issues like prison reform instead of policies like the “No Cussing Week”. You can reach him at jstepman@ucdavis.edu.


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