Scathing Report on California Death Penalty Released

California's death penalty system is near collapse. That's the conclusion of study by the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. That panel was created by state lawmakers three years ago to look at how California handles the death penalty. In its final report, the commission said delays in the justice system undermine the deterrent effects of the death penalty - and actually extend the suffering of victim's families. KPCC's Julie Small has more on the commission's report.

Julie Small: California has the largest "Death Row" in the nation, and the longest lag time between judgment and execution. The average wait: 20 years.

John Van de Kamp: The death penalty today remains a hollow promise.

Small: Former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp chaired the commission. He says since California voters passed a death penalty initiative in 1978, only a handful of those people sentenced to death have been executed.

Van de Kamp: Thirteen in 30 years, 670 on "Death Row," and that number is growing.

Small: Delays in every stage of the legal process drag out the process. That's why the commission recommends doubling the funding for death penalty litigation to nearly $200 million. Most of that money would pay for more defense attorneys, starting at the county level in the trial courts. L.A. County Public Defender Michael Judge says the state created an uneven terrain when it stopped reimbursing counties for death penalty defense.

Michael Judge: It's really hit or miss. If you're in a county where there is appropriate funding, then you may have appropriate representation.

Small: If not, your defense will come from a private attorney paid a flat fee by the county. Michael Judge says that attorney doesn't have an incentive to spend enough money on investigation and expert witnesses. Some members of the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice want to narrow the types of killings that carry a death sentence.

They say that could cut the number of "Death Row" inmates in half, and save California nearly $100 million a year. Other commissioners say the state could save even more if it scrapped the death penalty in favor of life in prison without parole. The only thing is, California voters would have to approve either change, and they've voted repeatedly for harsher penalties for killers.

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