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Lance T. Izumi - Contributor
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

Lance Izumi is Director of Education Studies for the Pacific Research Institute and
Senior Fellow in California Studies. He is a leading expert in education policy and the author of several major PRI studies. [go to Izumi index]

An Irrelevant Penalty
Scott Peterson needn’t fear the death sentence...

[Lance T. Izumi] 11/18/04

Listen to the TV talking heads or read press stories and the question everyone seems to be pondering is whether Scott Peterson will get the death penalty. There is huffing and puffing about the class and race issue, i.e. whether a good-looking affluent white male will actually receive the ultimate penalty. The reality is that the death penalty in California has become irrelevant because it’s virtually never carried out.

According to a Reuters report, since it was re-instated by the state in 1977, 629 criminals have been sentenced to die. Between then and now, only 10 of these criminals have been executed. In other words, just 1.6 percent of criminals condemned to death have had their sentence carried out. Not exactly odds that would make anyone sweat.

Inmates on death row wait decades for their date with the Grim Reaper. Stephen Wayne Anderson, the last man executed in California, sat on death row for 20 years. Jill Brown, warden at San Quentin state prison in Marin County, says, “It’s not unusual for a man to be in here 20 years before an execution is carried out.” Between 1977 and 2002, the average time nationwide between sentencing and execution was around 10 years, or roughly half the time that a death-row inmate spends in Ms. Brown’s facility. Of course, there are those who believe the long delays are justified.

Steve Fama of the Prison Law Office, which represents inmates, argues, “If we’re going to kill somebody, we better be [expletive deleted] sure that the person actually did it and that he received a fair trial.” Putting an innocent person to death is something that no death-penalty proponent wants, but the issue is whether it should take decades to establish actual guilt and the fairness of proceedings. Many legal experts and much of the public would answer “no.”

“I think the process takes longer than it needs to,” observes Dana Gillette, a top state Justice Department official who oversees death penalty cases. Gillette believes that rather than the average of 20 years for death-penalty judicial reviews, the review process “could be done in five to seven years.” Gillette pointedly notes that no one in California history has ever received the death penalty and been later cleared of his alleged crime.

With few executions and more inmates on death row, the state is planning to build an expensive $220 million expansion of San Quentin’s death row – a project that exasperates many taxpayers. Jack Wilkinson, former president of the Marin realty association, snaps: “So few people are executed at San Quentin that we will be building one of the most expensive waiting rooms in the United States. Indeed, people have a greater chance of being killed on the highway than they do at San Quentin.”

Failure to carry out executions in a prudent and timely manner defeats the purposes of the penalty. Criminals aren’t deterred by a penalty that is hardly ever carried out. Victims and their families never receive the justice promised by the legal system. Finally, the societal statement about the evil of certain crimes and the importance of meting out punishment that fits the crime is defeated.

No matter what happens to Scott Peterson, the state and federal judicial review processes of death penalty cases must be reformed. Justice delayed is justice truly denied. CRO

copyright 2004 Pacific Research Institute



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