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San Quentin Controversy

Ending the death penalty will stop the expensive proposed addition



Jim Wood.

Nearly 700 convicted murderers await execution at San Quentin State Prison, in the heart of Marin County. If just one of these men was executed by lethal injection a month, it would take nearly 60 years to eliminate this backlog. Now realize this: There hasn’t been a San Quentin execution in three and a half years. In fact, since California voters reinstated capital punishment 31 years ago, more convicted murderers have died of old age or suicide (41) than have been executed (13).

Making matters even more ludicrous, the state of California is determined to build a $400 million, two-story, freestanding death row facility at San Quentin. “We have tried everything to stop it, but Governor Schwarzenegger is jamming it through,” says Assemblyman Jared Huffman of Marin. “This ‘Cadillac’ of a death row precludes any noncorrectional uses for those 45 acres, land that would be ideal for a SMART rail-to-ferry connection, or workforce housing, or anything but that $400 million monstrosity.”

Huffman and other opponents of the new death row say the project is being driven by California’s anarchic and barbaric belief that capital punishment will somehow stop people from killing people. Not only has that concept been repeatedly disproved—history shows the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime—but numerous studies have demonstrated that it affects minorities and the poor disproportionately.

There are other considerations as well. Having a death penalty enrolls California in an unsavory club—only Iran, China and a few Eastern European and African nations still enforce capital punishment. And, from a cost standpoint, the death penalty is very time-consuming and laborious, and therefore extremely expensive to administer in a nation that values human rights.

A recent New York Times editorial reported that the 13 executions conducted at San Quentin since 1978 have cost California taxpayers $250 million per execution. In addition, states the Times, “California’s death row costs taxpayers $114 million a year more than the cost of imprisoning convicts for life without possibility of parole.”

Add to that the $400 million for San Quentin’s new death row, millions that could be used to restore recent cuts in education, safety and other state services, and you’ve got a situation that absolutely makes no sense. This is not about being hard or soft on crime; it’s about being smart or dumb on economics and finance. When will the people of California ever learn? On a certain level, the answer lies with us, the people of Marin.

“I think people in Marin have incredible potential when it comes to changing the face of criminal justice in California,” says Dr. Jody Lewen, executive director of Prison University Project, a Marin-based nonprofit that provides higher education programs at San Quentin. “They seem to be open-minded and always interested in the cause of change.”

What am I driving at? Simply put, it now appears the only way to stop a $400 million death row “monstrosity” from being built in Marin is for Marin to be more aggressive in abolishing California’s death penalty. How? By writing Governor Schwarzenegger (State Capitol Bldg., Sacramento, CA, 95814), calling him (916.445.2841) or e-mailing him (governor@governor.ca.gov). Also, ask a Death Penalty Focus representative to speak to your service club or community group. Attorney Frank Leidman (415.982.0321) is president of the Marin chapter and the one to call.

Finally, we can initiate a petition to place an initiative abolishing California’s death penalty on the November 2010 ballot. For the first time, says professor Craig Haney of UC Santa Cruz, who conducted a survey on the subject, “most Californian’s support a sentence of life without possibility of parole rather than the death penalty.” Assemblyman Huffman says that when people learn about the downsides of the death penalty and alternative of a life sentence without possibility of parole “they immediately prefer the latter. It’s a matter of education.”

Here’s one place to learn more: on October 29 at 7 p.m. at the Sisters Gathering Space at Dominican University in San Rafael, there will be a 90-minute panel discussion involving Huffman, Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey and former San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford. The title: “The Future of San Quentin Prison and California’s Death Penalty.” That is an excellent time for Marin’s citizens to begin working on abolishing California’s death penalty.

That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

E-mail jwood@marinmagazine.com.

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