Killing Me Softly

More news from CDCR: The state has submitted lethal injection procedures to the Office of Administrative Law, which are available for public review and comment. The public comment period will close on Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 5PM. A public hearing has been scheduled for June 30, 2009 from 9AM-3PM at the Auditorium of the Department of Health Services, 1500 Capitol Ave.

Take a look at the regulations, or read more about them from our blogging friends over at PrisonMovement.

I find myself somewhat speechless at the entire computer-generated display, complete with euphemisms, so I’ll just express puzzlement over the construction plans in the face of a $400,000,000 deficit. I prefer the New Mexico solution.

Let’s Do Something

After a series of legal struggles, Troy Davis’ life is in danger again.

The 11th Circuit denied his request for a new trial, rejecting his argument of actual innocence.

This is not a California issue, but it concerns all of us. May 19 has been declared a Global Day of Action for Troy Davis. Whatever you think about the death penalty, please read more about this case, and if you have a feeling, as I do, that something very wrong is about to happen, let’s do something.

Judge Alsup: Death Row Conditions in San Quentin Reach Constitutional Threshold

(images courtesy

Some of the recent discussion of prison costs has to do with the expenses associated with running San Quentin’s Death Row. As some of you may recall, a planned expansion of Death Row, deemed costly, was killed by a bipartisan initiative last year. The struggle around the planned expansion occurred against the background of 30 years of litigation regarding conditions on Death Row.

Yesterday, the Chron reports, Judge William Alsup of the California District Court ended this lengthy era of court supervision, after ruling that the improvements made to Death Row were enough to satisfy constitutional requirements. The improvements included getting rid of dirty water and rodents.

The nation’s largest Death Row now houses 665 men. Only 10 inmates were held there when the suit was filed shortly after capital punishment was reinstated in California in 1977.

Fama said the inmates’ original complaints were dirty and decrepit housing and a system that classified all condemned prisoners as security risks who had to be confined to their cells nearly 24 hours a day.

The 1980 consent decree required prison officials to evaluate condemned inmates individually and allow the less-dangerous ones the same exercise time and visiting privileges as non-Death Row inmates. It also required improvements in food, medical care, cells, showers and access to a law library.

As the Death Row population multiplied, the state periodically sought to end court supervision. But a series of reports by judicially appointed monitors over the years found a variety of violations, including a flawed cell assignment system that led to violent clashes and disciplinary rules that sent offenders to “strip cells” wearing only a pair of shorts.

One thing that strikes me as interesting is that the improvement in conditions consists, in some respects, of making the Death Row experience more like “regular” life imprisonment. Does this reflect a realistic understanding that Death Row has become no more than a very lengthy imprisonment period, with a possible (but not certain) ending by execution? The time between sentencing and execution has gradually increased since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977. San Quentin Death Row currently houses 665 men; between 1977 and 2008, 14 men were executed. The recent trend we have documented, of cost-driven moratoria on the death penalty, is complicated by the costs of death penalty-related litigation (Brandon Garrett of Virginia Law School presented an interesting work on this, in its early stages, at the Conference for Empirical Legal Studies last year); one possible scenario is that, at some point, Death Row will quietly become a thing of the past, and conditions (as well as inmates) will be indistinguishable from those pertaining to life without parole.

This actually has a precedent; after the Roper v. Simmons decision, which rendered the death penalty for juveniles unconstitutional, all death sentences against juveniles were shifted to Life Without Parole (for an argument that Roper deems LWOP unconstitutional for juveniles, as well, check out what the good folks at the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog have to say). The cost argument may be supplemented by some studies that doubt the efficacy and humaneness of death by lethal injection.
In any case, the improvement of conditions may make Death Row more akin to the general population prison, and may be an invisible step toward a CA moratorium that will go beyond a de facto lag in executions.

Sister Helen Prejean to Speak in Walnut Creek

More events of interest: Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking (made into an excellent movie), will be speaking next Monday at the Mount Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek. These are exciting times for those interested in the death penalty, as New Mexico abolished capital punishment four days ago, and as other states place moratoria on executions, citing costs. To get a sense of the broader cultural implications of the death penalty, I strongly recommend Austin Sarat’s When the State Kills.

Is the Death Penalty Too Expensive?

(image courtesy

The New York Times reports on a trend we’ve already seen here a couple of times: penal reform and punitive measures being abandoned not on their merits, but because of their costs. The article is not California-specific; the picture you see is from Virginia, and the data in the piece come from Maryland.

Nevertheless, the point is an interesting one: whatever the public thinks about the death penalty, it’s expensive, and several states are abandoning it in light of the costs.

Death penalty opponents say they still face an uphill battle, but they are pleased to have allies raising the economic argument.

Efforts to repeal the death penalty are part of a broader trend in which states are trying to cut the costs of being tough on crime. Virginia and at least four other states, for example, are considering releasing nonviolent offenders early to reduce costs.

What about the CA costs? The California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice provides some data. The report offers abundant information on other aspects of death penalty administration, pointing primarily to long delays in carrying sentences and to inadequate representation. However, if the fiscal argument is the one that might win the day, the bottom line is as follows:

The additional cost of confining an inmate to death row, as compared to the maximum security prisons where those sentenced to life without possibility of parole ordinarily serve their sentences, is $90,000 per year per inmate. With California’s current death row population of 670, that accounts for $63.3 million annually.

The report makes a variety of suggestions regarding reforms in death penalty administration, including guarantees for adequate representation. Those in themselves might be quite costly, and the public might be as reluctant to implement them as the legislators were when they killed the planned expansion to the San Quentin Death Row just a little while ago. One wonders how the new trend in other states may play out in California, or at least in counties in which the prosecution actually seeks the death penalty.

More Budgetary Kills: A Bipartisan Initiative to Oppose Death Row Expansion

… and now, to something completely different.

Two legislators from opposing parties and with opposite views on the death penalty joined Tuesday to propose cutting off funding for a new $395 million Death Row at San Quentin, calling it a boondoggle that a financially strapped state can’t afford.

“The Death Row expansion is a bottomless money pit,” said state Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater (Merced County).

“We should use this opportunity, with the state running out of cash, to step back and rethink this project,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who joined Denham at a news conference in front of the aging Marin County prison. He referred to the project as a “Cadillac Death Row” and said many condemned inmates could be safely housed at other prisons during their decades of appeals.

A few thoughts:

1) We may have finally arrived to a place where supporters and opponents of the Death Penalty are faced with the realities of a prison system that, regardless of its moral merits, cannot be financially tolerated.

2) At a time when emergency discourse is the required preface to every public discussion, we no longer, perhaps, have the leisure to contemplate what sort of legal system produces such a huge number of people on Death Row in the first place, and the prevalence of this emergency discourse might, yet again, postpone that important discussion.

3) Compare and contrast this to the previous post about the axing of the CJC budget. Perhaps we have finally come to a point in which we can no longer have discussions about the merits of correctional initiatives, only about their costs.