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Is the death penalty killing education?

California’s $20 billion budget deficit has assaulted the state’s public education system. On March 4, thousands of outraged students, teachers and community members participated in a historic demonstration — protesting tuition increases, layoffs, reduction in instructional days, refusal of admission to thousands of qualified applicants and the closure of spring admissions on many public university campuses.

Even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged the situation is terrible in a March 4 speech saying, “We have done everything that we could.”

There is more California can do.

California taxpayers spend approximately $256 million a year on the death penalty’s pre-and post-conviction costs, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. Eliminating the death penalty would enable California to redirect millions to the public education system.

California’s death penalty is a hollow and costly promise. Currently, there is no legal method of execution in California. In 2006, Schwarzenegger declared a moratorium on executions after a judge found California’s lethal injection procedures violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the government from exercising cruel and unusual punishment.

The moratorium, however, has had no impact on death-sentencing rates. In fact, 2009 saw 29 new death sentences, the highest since 2000. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Condemned Inmate List, California has the largest death row population in the United States with 702 people currently living on death row, many of whom have been there for close to 30 years and more than 60 of whom have been sentenced to death since the moratorium.

According to a report by the ACLU of Northern California, the cost of housing one person on death row is $90,000 more per year than the cost of housing a person sentenced to life in prison. That equals more than $63 million a year spent on housing costs alone. County taxpayers pay pre-conviction costs and death judgments in trial require additional expenditures, adding up to approximately $1.1 million.

With 40 people living on death row, Alameda County currently has the fourth largest population on death row. In the last 10 years, 15 people from Alameda County have been sentenced to death and district attorneys have spent more than $16 million seeking death judgments.

At a March 4 meeting with education leaders and students, Schwarzenegger said, “I mean, that’s terrible. 30 years ago, we spent three percent of our general fund on prisons and now we spend 10 percent. At that time we spent 11 percent on higher education; now we only spend 7.5 percent on higher education.”

What he didn’t point out is that it was just over 30 years ago that California reinstated the death penalty.

The death penalty upholds institutionalized racism as well. The inherent racism in the criminal justice system inequitably targets people of color. A report published by Cornell Law Faculty Publications researchers found that, in murder cases with a white victim and a black defendant, juries were more likely to give a death sentence when the appearance of the defendant was more stereotypically “black.”

Black men represent just under four percent of the total population of California and 37 percent of the death row population, according to the CDCR’s Condemned Inmate List.

Thus, the death penalty is worthless, wasteful and racist. Making life in prison the harshest punishment possible for murder and redirecting funds to the public education system would demonstrate that Californians value education over vengeance.

California is making significant progress. Last week, the Democratic Party of California resolved that the party’s platform will no longer support the death penalty.

But our state needs to do more. Abolishing the death penalty would save more than $1 billion in just five years. Californians deserve a well-funded, accessible public education system and an equitable, just and functional criminal justice system. The death penalty has no place in California.