Former San Quentin Warden Condemns Death Penalty

Jeanne Woodford, the former director of the California Department of Corrections, is also the former warden of San Quentin State Prison, where she presided over four executions. She isn't soft on crime. Yet Woodford no longer believes that executions are necessary to society's safety. Her argument is pragmatic: life imprisonment is "cheaper -- much, much cheaper than execution." Yet she also confronts the ethical question:

To say that I have regrets about my involvement in the death penalty is to let myself off the hook too easily. To take a life in order to prove how much we value another life does not strengthen our society. It is a public policy that devalues our very being and detracts crucial resources from programs that could truly make our communities safe.

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The pragmatic argument should resonate with fiscal conservatives:

I wish the public knew how much the death penalty affects their wallets. California spends an additional $117 million each year pursuing the execution of those on death row. Just housing inmates on death row costs an additional $90,000 per prisoner per year above what it would cost to house them with the general prison population.

A statewide, bipartisan commission recently concluded that we must spend $100 million more each year to fix the many problems with capital punishment in California. Total price tag: in excess of $200 million-a-year more than simply condemning people to life without the possibility of parole.

If we condemn the worst offenders ... to permanent imprisonment, resources now spent on the death penalty could be used to investigate unsolved homicides, modernize crime labs and expand effective violence prevention programs, especially in at-risk communities. The money also could be used to intervene in the lives of children at risk and to invest in their education -- to stop future victimization.

Every resident of a death penalty state should listen to Woodford, as should Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

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    "pragmatics" (none / 0) (#1)
    by diogenes on Thu Oct 02, 2008 at 10:57:00 PM EST
    The pragmatic argument would be to reduce the number of appeals dramatically.  If one or two innocent people actually were executed for two hundred million saved then it would still be cost effective if the money were plowed into public health or even prison health programs; one must think that two hundred million dollars would save a few lives.
    Also, many people who plead to life without parole would no longer do so if it weren't a plea bargain down from the death penalty.  You have to consider the judicial costs of those trials and the chance that a murderer (can you say OJ Simpson?) will be set free by any given jury.  Also families/witnesses will be subjected to trials and possible threats, as murder witnesses in inner city cases often are.  A plea bargain down from a capital case to LWOP is much better.

    $200M might save more lives (none / 0) (#3)
    by Montague on Thu Oct 02, 2008 at 11:04:53 PM EST
    but what kind of society are we that we would put someone on death row, deny appeals, execute that person in the name of the law (and revenge - that's what it is, after all)... and the person was innocent all along?

    It's one thing when cancer kills a person.  Quite another when society kills a person.


    Well said.... (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by kdog on Fri Oct 03, 2008 at 09:04:14 AM EST
    one innocent person executed is unacceptable.  Even in a hypothetical where killing one innocent would bring about a cure for cancer, or guarantee world peace.

    You can't judge the value of human lives using an economics based cost/benefit analysis...that is pretty sick stuff.


    Finally (none / 0) (#2)
    by Montague on Thu Oct 02, 2008 at 11:01:22 PM EST
    That's what I have said for years.  It's not cheaper to kill inmates.  And, gee, if someone is exonerated later by DNA evidence or something, won't we be glad if he or she is still alive and maybe can still have a life outside prison?

    As they say in Iowa, "Life means life."  In other words, LWOP is upheld.  That keeps dangerous offenders in prison, but also - in case of new evidence - it can free a person who was wrongfully jailed.

    gee diogenes, it's nice of (none / 0) (#4)
    by cpinva on Fri Oct 03, 2008 at 08:54:15 AM EST
    you to be willing to murder a couple of innocent people, for the sake of "cost effectiveness". i'm certain they'll be more than happy to take a needle for you, to save some cash. i have a better idea, why don't you be one of the guinea pigs?

    actually, to take your suggestion to it's logical progression, why bother with appeals at all? just take them out in back of the courthouse and shoot them in the back of the head. quick and cheap (a .45 round only costs about 75 cents), and no pesky DNA tests on the horizon.

    a little messy sure, but do it in a dirt lot, and no one will care. actually, aside from the condemned, their family, the victim's family and the execution team, no one really cares anyway.

    this isn't really news, this data has been out for at least 20 years, well before even the most recent USSC cases, when slow strangulation was considered ok, by 8th amendment standards.

    Wow, that's a lot of garbage (none / 0) (#10)
    by fuzzyone on Fri Oct 03, 2008 at 12:09:21 PM EST
    Its hard to know where to start, and frankly, I have a real job and don't have the time to comprehensively rebut all of dudley's spam.  But here are a few things.

    For a refutation of the crappy deterrence studies check out this page at the Death Penalty Information Center.  While reading, ponder why states without the death penalty consistently have lower murder rates than those with it.

    This claim demonstrates a profound ignorance of what is going on in California and the capital appeals process:

    5) There is no reason for death penalty appeals to take longer than 7 years. All death penalty appeals, direct and writ, should travel through the process concurrently, thereby giving every appellate issue 7 years of consideration through both state and federal courts. There is no need for endless repetition and delay. This would result in a reduction in both adjudication and incarceration costs.

    First, there are currently about 79 inmates (Out of about 670 total) on California's death row with no lawyer for their direct appeal and 291 with no habeas lawyer because the state has not provided sufficient funding for the state agencies that handle these cases and there are not enough private attorneys willing to take the cases.  The wait just to get a lawyer in California is thus 3 - 5 years for direct appeal and 8-10 for habeas.

    The above figures are from the report of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice which estimated it would cost an additional $95 million a year to fix the problems with California's death penalty system.

    It might be possible to speed up the process by setting deadlines that would prevent thorough investigation and lower the standards for defense lawyers.  Of course such a speeding up the process will also greatly increase the chance of a wrongful execution and will increase the incentive for the prosecution and law enforcement to do the kind of stonewalling and suppression of evidence that has often been at the root of exonerations.  But who cares really.

    Who cares that of the 54 cases in California that have been heard on federal habeas review 38 have had new guilt or penalty trials ordered.  This reflects two things:  First, the often extreme incompetence of trial counsel in California, but no one wants to spend money on that either. Second, the cowardice of the California Supreme Court, which, following the removal or Rose Bird and several other judges, as become a rubber stamp for injustice.

    Dudley's comments were removed (none / 0) (#11)
    by TChris on Fri Oct 03, 2008 at 01:21:55 PM EST
    Advocacy for the death penalty in long rambling comments that rely on faulty evidence is not acceptable at TalkLeft.

    Keeping up tradition (none / 0) (#12)
    by Pieter B on Fri Oct 03, 2008 at 02:54:16 PM EST
    Ms. Woodford has joined Clinton T Duffy, former San Quentin warden, and Lewis E Lawes, former Sing Sing warden, in opposition to the death penalty. Reading the books of Duffy and Lawes back in the early '60s turned me into a lifelong foe of the death penalty, though I must confess that I've become a bit ambivalent as the years have passed. It's hard to remain an absolutist when they throw a Timothy McVeigh at you, y'know?

    Why (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by fuzzyone on Fri Oct 03, 2008 at 04:25:10 PM EST
    McVeigh was clearly not deterred or deterable.  What is the point of executing rather than letting him rot.