Monday, July 18, 2011

Death Rattle For California's Death Penalty

"California’s death penalty exists in name only, an expensive fiction that undermines confidence in our justice
system, causes harm to victims’ families, and consumes literally billions of dollars--resources that would be better spent on protecting our families, solving crimes and supporting our schools and education."  -- ACLU-NC Report
As the oblivious California Supreme Court rubber stamps death penalty appeals at an unprecedented affirmance rate (38 out of 38 in 2010-2011, nearly all unanimous), it is becoming increasingly clear that the death penalty in California is costly, unworkable, inhumane, and on its way out.  (See California's Unusually Cruel Penalty.)

Former Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon recently wrote:
Since reinstating the death penalty in 1978, California taxpayers have spent roughly $4 billion to fund a dysfunctional death penalty system that has carried out no more than 13 executions. The current backlog of death penalty cases is so severe that most of the 714 prisoners now on death row will wait well over 20 years before their cases are resolved. Many of these condemned inmates will thus languish on death row for decades, only to die of natural causes while still waiting for their cases to be resolved.
The ACLU of Northern California has issued an important report, California Death Penalty Is Dead:  Anatomy of a Failure, outlining related developments which "reveal a system in total collapse."

First, not only have there been only 13 executions since the death penalty was reinstated, there have been no executions since 2006.  This de facto moratorium stems from litigation over the method of execution, which revealed that one of the drugs used in the lethal injection process may mask excruciating pain. Before the issue could be resolved, California, among other states, ran out of the drugs they needed to carry out executions which led to potentially illegal actions by state officials in acquiring a new supply.  (See Drug Problem; Lethal Life Savers.)  It does not appear that the legal and practical problems in carrying out executions will be resolved any time soon.  (See Just Say No; State of Barbarism.)

Second, "death penalty promoters have been snubbed at the ballot box."  Democratic candidates, including Jerry Brown (Governor) and Gavin Newsom (Lt. Gov.) as well as those down the ticket, all announced their personal opposition to the death penalty yet they all won last November.  Most notably, Kamala Harris defeated "law and order" L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley for Attorney General despite Cooley's focused attack against her for refusing to pursue the death penalty for the killer of a San Francisco policeman  (See Tough on Crime.)

In addition, a 2011 poll  found 63% of likely California voters support converting death sentences to permanent imprisonment.  As the ACLU reports, "the proposal received support across political party lines and all regions of the state, including a majority of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans."

And finally, the severe budgetary problems in the State highlight how resources used to fund the death penalty could be far more effectively spent.  As the report puts it:  "Death penalty costs are extraordinary and detrimental to public safety at a time of economic crisis."   46% of homicides in California are never solved, and millions of dollars expended every year on the death penalty could be used on effective programs that improve public safety.


The fact is that there have been only three death verdicts in the entire state in the first half of 2011.  This compares with 13 last year, and is the lowest number of new death sentences in a six month period since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978.  Prosecutors and jurors "turning away from the death penalty" reflect disillusionment with capital punishment across the state.

So, let's make it official.  To abolish the death penalty in California, voters must vote to repeal it by a popular referendum.  To put a referendum on the ballot requires legislation or a petition signed by for the requisite number of voters.  California State Senator, Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, has authored a bill, SB 490, for a ballot measure to repeal the death penalty.  It was approved by the Public Safety Committee on July 7, and now goes to the Appropriations Committee before it is presented to the full state legislature.  If placed on the November 2012 ballot and passed by the voters, the referendum would replace the death penalty with a maximum punishment of life without the possibility of parole plus work and restitution, saving the state $1 billion over the next ten years.

Natasha Minsker, the ACLU's Death Penalty Policy Director sums it up well:
“California’s death penalty is dead. The signs are clear: Prosecutors are moving towards life imprisonment with no chance of parole over the legal fiction that is California’s death penalty.  New polls and election results also show that voters favor replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, with a requirement for work and restitution paid to the Victims’ Compensation Fund.”
As the ACLU report concludes, "only by replacing the death penalty with life without parole can we provide justice to California taxpayers and communities."

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