WHEN A GOVERNMENT policy for decades has failed to accomplish its purpose and costs far more than an effective alternative, one would think a change would come easily. But that is hardly the case regarding California's dysfunctional and highly expensive death penalty.

Since the state's death penalty was reinstated in 1978, taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment. California has 714 inmates on death row, more than any other sate. However, only 13 executions have been carried out, the last one in 2006. That amounts to $308 million per execution.

Housing prisoners on death row is inordinately expensive, costing California taxpayers $184 million more every year than it would if those same prisoners were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, according to a major new analysis of the cost of capital punishment.

It is not just the high cost of housing one inmate per cell on death row that makes capital punishment so expensive. Death penalty prosecutions cost up to 20 times more than a life-sentence case.

The study found that the least expensive capital punishment trial cost $1.1 million more than the most expensive life-without-parole case. That's because jury selection takes far longer, the state pays up to $300,000 for a defendant's attorney and security costs are high.

Also, there are two trials, one to determine guilt and a second for sentencing, and that doesn't count the numerous constitutionally mandated appeals, which can take many years

In California, the average delay between conviction and execution is now more than 25 years. This figure is likely to get longer with constitutional challenges to the state's lethal injection procedure.

The findings of the latest study are not surprising. They are similar to the results of numerous analyses over the past few decades in California and elsewhere.

There is no practical way to make the death penalty substantially cheaper without risking the execution of innocent people. In recent years, DNA evidence has proven the innocence of numerous prisoners on death row in other states. These results should make us wary of trying to save time and money by fast-tracking death-penalty cases and executions.

If the death penalty resulted in lower homicide rates, it might be worth it, even with the high costs. But clearly, capital punishment does not lead to fewer murders. That is true even in states like Texas, were executions are far more frequent than in California.

A recent survey by The New York Times found that states without the death penalty have lower homicide rates than those with capital punishment.

During the past two decades the murder rate in states with the death penalty has been 48 percent to 101 percent higher than in states that do not execute criminals.

Even in similar bordering states, death penalty states usually have a higher murder rate than their neighboring non-death penalty states.

The authors of the latest California study say the state has three options regarding the death penalty. It could preserve the current system with an additional $85 million more in funding each year. The state could reduce the number of death penalty crimes for a yearly savings of $55 million. Or California could follow 16 other states and abolish capital punishment for a savings of up to $200 million a year.

State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, plans to introduce a bill to abolish the state's death penalty and covert condemned inmates' sentences to life in prison without parole. She said, "Capital punishment is an expensive failure and an example of the dysfunction of our prisons. It is not helping to protect our state; it is helping to bankrupt us."

That sums up our belief that it is in the best interest of all Californians to end capital punishment in this state and replace it with life in prison with no possibility of parole.

See our online photo slideshow of San Quentin State Prison at www.insidebayarea.com/opinion and click on our editorial.