Harris County, Texas, used to be known as the death penalty capital of the United States, the focus of national and global outrage over an outdated, costly and immoral form of criminal justice. But things have changed: Harris County now has a sentencing record that looks like Denmark’s, and the hanging judges (or rather, prosecutors) seem to have relocated to liberal Los Angeles.
A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union shows that Los Angeles County sent more people to death row last year than any other county in the U.S. -- and more than the entire state of Texas. The trend is particularly odd given that most of the rest of the country is headed in the opposite direction. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the number of death sentences nationwide last year was the lowest since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.
A spokeswoman for the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office says that 2009, when 13 felons were sentenced to death, was an anomaly because some capital cases took years to get to trial. Indeed, although the number of inmates sentenced to death annually was often in the double digits in the 1990s, there were only six in L.A. County in both 2008 and 2007. But that still doesn’t fully explain why the office isn’t following the lead of prosecutors in the rest of the U.S., who are pursuing fewer capital cases because in recent years some condemned inmates have been shown to be innocent and the economic costs of capital punishment are becoming harder to bear.
Los Angeles isn’t the only killer county in California; death sentences were also up sharply in Orange and Riverside counties last year. The rest of the state, though, seems to be more in line with the national trend, according to the ACLU.
California hasn’t killed an inmate in four years because of a legal battle over execution procedures, and its condemned population has soared above 700. That exceeds the capacity of San Quentin State Prison’s death row, which is in need of a $395.5-million upgrade. Expenses related to the death penalty cost the state $137 million per year, according to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, at a time when Sacramento is trying to cope with a $20-billion budget deficit.
The cost, of course, isn’t the best reason to end the death penalty -- it’s that an imperfect justice system cannot provide 100% certainty of guilt, making us all guilty of state-sanctioned murder when the courts get it wrong. That’s why most developed nations have done away with capital punishment. In that context, L.A. prosecutors aren’t just being overzealous, they’re being inhumane.