Friday, November 25, 2011

California, Like Oregon, Has A "Compromised And Inequitable" Death Penalty System

I do not believe that those executions made us safer; certainly I don’t believe they made us more noble as a society.  -- Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber

When John Kitzhaber previously served as Oregon's Governor (from 1995 to 2003), he presided over the executions of Douglas Franklin Wright in 1996, and Harry Charles Moore in 1997.  Kitzhaber, who was again elected Governor last fall, admitted “they were the most agonizing and difficult decisions I have made as governor and I have revisited and questioned them over and over again during the past 14 years.”  There hasn't been an execution in Oregon since.

Gary Haugen was scheduled to be executed on December 6.  Haugen had given up his appeals and volunteered for execution to protest what he described as the arbitrary and vindictive nature of the death penalty.  (Wright and Moore had also waived their appeals.)

Kitzhaber granted a reprieve to Haugen on Tuesday, and announced he would not allow any executions to go forward as long as he is in office.  “I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values,” he stated. “I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer."

With 37 inmates on death row in Oregon, many of whom have been there for more than 20 years,  Kitzhaber decried an “unworkable system that fails to meet basic standards of justice.”  Despite the wide sense the death penalty process is flawed, he maintained the state has “done nothing; we have avoided the question.”

Here in California we have strikingly similar problems only on a far larger scale.  We have over 700 men and women on death row, with an average wait of well over 20 years.  There have been 13 executions since the re-institution of the death penalty in 1977, and none since 2006. 

One difference from Oregon is that California's scheme has been extensively studied and its dysfunction conclusively established.  In 2008, the bi-partisan California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice (CCFAJ) issued its report which found California's death penalty is “plagued with excessive delay” in the appointment of post-conviction counsel and a “severe backlog” in the Court’s review of appeals and habeas petitions.  According to CCFAJ's report, the lapse of time from sentence of death to execution constitutes the longest delay of any death penalty state.

With the largest death row in the country, CCFAJ reached a well-documented conclusion that common-sense already tells us:  “most California death sentences are actually sentences of lifetime incarceration.  The defendant will die in prison before he or she is ever executed.”  Indeed, “the backlog is now so severe that California would have to execute five prisoners per month for the next twelve years just to carry out the sentences of those currently on death row.”

A study released in June by U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Arthur L. Alarcon found that California's death penalty system is currently costing the state about $184 million per year.  Further, "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."

There are sixteen states without the death penalty, and another seven, like Oregon, which have not used it for over ten years.  As Gov. Kitzhaber noted, the last three that repealed their death penalty statutes  – Illinois, New Jersey and New Mexico – recognized the serious flaws and high costs of maintaining it.  California's death penalty, similarly, is costly, arbitrary, discriminatory, and unworkable.  It serves no useful purpose while diverting needed resources from true public safety programs.

The only way to end the death penalty in California is by a ballot initiative, and the statewide signature‑gathering effort to place such an initiative on the November 2012 ballot is well underway.  Over 100,000 signatures have been obtained but 500,000 are needed.  Join the effort by clicking here:  SAFE California.

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