When J. Clark Kelso, the court appointed receiver for California’s prison healthcare system demanded that a federal judge order the state to come up with $8 billion over the next 5 years to fund his overhaul of the system, there was the predictable anger and outrage from politicians and interest groups on both sides of the issue. This was followed by another predictable step in these dramas when the Governor issued a statement that read in part, “we will continue to work cooperatively with the receiver in a fiscally responsible way to provide the necessary funding”.

But while everyone is rightly focused on the staggering amount Kelso has asked for, we are somehow forgetting about another significant expenditure in the budget—the escalating cost of the new death row at San Quentin.

The “estimated” cost for this facility is now pegged at $395.5 million, and as sure as the sun coming up in the morning, you know the cost will only grow before it’s completed. $19 million has already been spent on planning and construction could begin later this year. There is no question that San Quentin’s aging death house is overcrowded, and since we keep adding new crimes and circumstances every year that can get a person a date with the executioner, it will only get worse.

But, is a new death row the answer?

First, a few facts:

Since we have not executed too many killers in the last 31 years and it is unlikely any Governor is going to put in an express lane at death row, it would require 5 executions a month for over ten years to clear up the current backlog. That is without adding any more prisoners to death row starting now and assuming all 674 currently there had exhausted their appeals.

But if we are not going to carry out the death penalty, why have it?

And how soon will it be before the new death row will be filled to capacity so that we need to build more cells?

I am sure many of my conservative friends will read this and think I am advocating abolishing the death penalty. And many of my liberal friends will think the same although for different reasons.

However my purpose in writing this is not to take sides in this highly charged and emotional debate. It is to point out that what we are doing is not working and that simply building more prison cells and a bigger death row are not the answers in dealing with the issue of crime and punishment.

Who is to blame for this situation? We all are.

The politicians are to blame because they are continually passing new laws on what crimes get the death penalty hoping to look “tough on crime” to the voters. But every time a new “special circumstance” is added to what crimes can get you a date with the executioner, we don’t ever project what it will cost or if that person will ever see the death house.

The courts and the exhaustive appeals process is to blame because many times they seem to care more about the rights of the condemned than the rights of the victims. Since the death penalty was reinstated, the extremely liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court has ruled against prosecutors in 38 of 54 cases.

The public is also to blame because they are too easily swayed via 30 second spots at election time that simplistically say a candidate is “tough on crime” never asking what that really means. “Tough on crime” is not necessarily being “smart on crime”.

But unless and until we have an honest debate in California about not just the death penalty but our entire justice and correctional system, costs will continue to rise, prisons will be overcrowded, and convicted killers will languish on death row. We simply can’t afford to keep doing things the way we have been.

Meanwhile the families of the victims will have to endure years of watching someone who killed a loved one, thumbing their nose at them and filing appeal after appeal, while they must struggle to figure out what might have been for the family member whose life has been snuffed out.

For them, justice delayed is justice denied.