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Lisa Green

As I read The Californian's Sept. 9 editorial, "End costly, inefficient death penalty," I couldn't help but wonder about the sense of abandonment that would be felt by a family member of a victim whose killer had been sentenced to death. They may have sat through lengthy trials, endured numerous appeals and awaited execution dates that never happened due to one delay after another, most if not all due to the defendant and/or his attorney. Hopefully, the family could take some measure of comfort in the belief that, someday, justice would be done when the defendant was executed.

If Proposition 34 passes, that day will never come for 725 convicted murderers, 25 of them from Kern County, because according to the proponents of Prop. 34, the death penalty costs too much. Their sentences will be automatically commuted to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Unlike their victims, they will die a natural death.

Attacking the death penalty due to cost is a new tactic. In years past, opponents have claimed the death penalty is being applied in a discriminatory manner; has resulted in the execution of innocent individuals; and has not been a deterrent to crime. The truth is, in California no innocent individual has been executed. The truth is, 36 percent of the people on death row are black, 36 percent are white, and 23 percent are Hispanic. The truth is, nationwide, study upon study reveals that the death penalty is in fact a deterrent. Without substantive support, death penalty opponents cling to their current trendy tag line: "It costs too much." So the question becomes, what is the cost of justice?

Thanks to the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union, housing death row inmates does cost more than housing inmates in the general population. However, the figures opponents use are grossly inflated because they do not take into account fixed costs, which will remain regardless of the outcome of Prop. 34. The costs of prosecuting capital cases are not significantly greater than noncapital cases. Jury selection takes a little longer, the defendant is entitled to two attorneys, but beyond that, juries need to be picked, evidence presented, verdicts reached and sentences imposed. The judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and court staff all go to work, regardless of whether the case is a death penalty case or not. Those fixed costs are not going away if Prop. 34 passes.

Prop. 34 proponents don't take into account increased costs for the 725 death row inmates that would be sentenced to LWOP if the measure passes. It costs money to feed, house and provide medical care for aging inmates. These are costs citizens would not have to shoulder if inmates were executed pursuant to the will of the people of this state.

Every person, whether in favor of or opposed to the death penalty, can agree on one thing: The current system is broken. Ironically, the fact is the delay in executions in California is caused primarily by the very people who seek to abolish it, the ACLU, which has given a quarter of a million dollars to support Prop. 34.

It's appalling that the people who have broken the system seek to do away with it on the basis that it's too costly to fix. Why wasn't the ACLU considering costs since it broke the system in the first place? I suggest we take a hard and long look at the death penalty, and put our collective heads together to work on fixing it, rather than eliminating it.

In the final analysis, the question becomes, "Who benefits from the repeated and prolonged delays that drive up the cost of the death penalty?" The answer is the defendants who live on death row. What the opponents don't and won't talk about relative to cost, is the cost in terms of human lives and suffering that the victims and their families have endured for far too many years. For them, and for us, people who believe there are consequences for one's actions, justice has no price tag. Preserve justice and public safety with a "no" vote on Proposition 34.

Lisa Green is the district attorney of Kern County. Another View presents a critical response to a previous editorial, column or news story.