ACLU report: Latinos increasingly sentenced to death in Calif.

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A guard stands at the entrance to the California State Prison at San Quentin January 22, 2007 in San Quentin, California.

California sent more people to death row last year than in the past seven years, says a report the American Civil Liberties Union released Tuesday.

California sent 29 people to death row last year — up from an average of 18 during each of the previous seven years. Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside Counties accounted for 83 percent of the death sentences.

"The thing that is most surprising is that Los Angeles charges more people with the death penalty that the state of Texas does," ACLU Southern California Executive Director Ramona Ripston said.

L.A. County imposed the death penalty 13 times last year.

Ripston accused L.A. prosecutors of unnecessarily charging people with crimes punishable by death.

“People are overcharged," Ripston said. "They all too often decided to charge with the death penalty rather than, for example, life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley has said his prosecutors appropriately charge all defendants.

Ripston says most California counties and other states are sentencing fewer people to death — a trend driven by concerns over wrongful convictions and the high costs of the death penalty.

"In a state where we are so concerned about budgetary consideration, this should be a major consideration," Ripston said.

She said sentencing someone to life in prison is cheaper than sentencing them to death because of the high cost of legal appeals and the special incarcerations needs for death row inmates.

The ACLU report also indicated that nearly one-third of the people sentenced to death last year in California were Latinos – up from 16 percent a decade ago.

The report said it couldn't account for the increase, but that the number “raises questions about district attorneys’ choices in charging death penalty cases and the composition of juries in these cases.”

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