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The Bay Area’s Death Belt

Jonathan Simon, professor of law | April 28, 2010

The ACLU of Northern California has published an impressive new report showing California leading the country in the use of death sentences in 2009, leaving once bloodthirsty states like Texas and Florida far behind. Driving California’s rush in the opposite direction from the rest of the country is a death belt in Southern California that includes Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange Counties that accounted for more than 80 percent of all California death sentences last year. The website also includes a nifty interactive map that allows you to examine each county in the state for how much money has been spent pursuing the death penalty since 2000, how many people have been sentenced to death since 2000, and how many people on death row total come from the county.

When you work your way around the (San Francisco) Bay Area, it turns out that only two counties in the five county area have spent more than $1 on seeking the death penalty. In my home county of Alameda, the District Attorney has spent more than 16 million dollars to send 15 people to death row since 2000. In next door Contra Costa County, the District Attorney has spent 12 million to send 11 people to death row. Keep in mind, that in California, a death sentence means mostly that you are very likely to never be released from prison and to die there (the fate of most death row occupants who have died over the last 35 years). But that is basically the same fate that awaits those sentenced to life in prison without parole under the state’s capital sentencing alternative (and indeed for far too many of the 1st and 2nd degree murderers who the law assumes to be paroled but are not). In San Francisco, San Mateo, Marin, and Santa Clara counties, DAs have chosen spend 0 dollars to send 0 people to death row during the same time period. It makes you wonder why these local East Bay leaders seem so out of touch with local priorities and values (may be we need to let them know we are here and know who they are on the ballot this November).

To me, at least in these years of dire need and fiscal crisis, this kind of squandering of public resources when those same funds could go to so many other public safety agencies with the ability to stop future murders including police, probation, community mental health treatment, among others, is outrageous (whatever you think about the abstract moral validity of the death penalty).

Originally published in Jonathan Simon’s blog,  Governing through Crime