John Diaz, the editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, recently questioned the wisdom of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the death penalty in California. Diaz pointed to the enormous expense of maintaining capital punishment in the state: “Today, California has nearly 700 inmates on death row, more than any other state, with their cases in varying levels of appeal. The housing of an inmate on death row is more than triple the $40,000 annual cost of incarcerating others. This state is contemplating a new, $400 million death row. And none of this includes the legal bills for the trials and appeals that are - by constitutional right - more exhaustive in capital cases.” He called for an open debate, “At some point, California needs to have a forthright debate about the cost and efficacy of the death penalty. That moment,” he wrote alluding to upcoming elections, “maybe coming in 2010.” He noted that executions are too rare in California to be a plausible deterrent. The percentage of Californians who believe the death penalty is a deterrent has dropped from 79% to 44% in the last twenty years.

Diaz also noted that the death penalty fails to bring closure to victims’ families who wait in vain for years, and are even left empty if the execution actually occurs. California has had 13 executions in 32 years. Diaz concluded, “It’s time for an honest discussion of whether death by an injection of poison sufficiently separates us from the barbarity we presume to condemn.”

(J. Diaz, “The high cost of vengeance,” San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 13, 2009). See Costs, Deterrence, and Victims.