Tuesday, October 16, 2012

California Puts the Death Penalty Issue to Referendum

This November, voters in California will be doing more than checking a box for a presidential candidate.  Proposition 34 on the ballot asks voters to abolish the death penalty in favor of lifetime prison sentences without the possibility of parole.  The proposed statute would apply retroactively, automatically commuting current death row prisoners’ sentences to life imprisonment.  If California decides to abolish the death penalty, it will be the 38thstate to do so.  Just last year, both Illinois and Connecticut outlawed capital punishment by passing laws in the state legislature.  California will leave the decision up to its state citizens by putting the question to a referendum.  According to California state election law, Proposition 34 will only be repealed if it receives more “No” votes than “Yes” votes

As of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) most recent survey, California has the most death row inmates of any state in the country with 724.  Despite the increasingly high number of death sentences handed down in California, only thirteen executions have been carried out since 1977.  This seemingly inefficiency has many former California supporters questioning their support of the death penalty.  One editorial in the Sacramento Bee characterized California’s system as an “outlawed, flawed, and expensive system of punishment that needs to be replaced with a rock-solid sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole."  The newspaper, which had previously supported the death penalty, urges its readers to vote in favor of Proposition 34 rather than invest in more money into a broken system.

The cost of the death penalty has also become a concern for longtime supporters, including former district attorney of L.A. County, Gil Garcetti.  Garcetti observed, “I was a supporter and believer in the death penalty, but I've begun to see that this system doesn't work and it isn't functional.  It costs an obscene amount of money."  The costs in a capital case remain exponentially higher in all aspects from trying the case through housing the inmate.  A recent study explained that jury selection costs the state $200,000 more in capital cases.  Additionally, it costs $100,000 more a year to house a death row inmate in state prison.  The appeals process adds to the already steep costs, with state and federal habeas petitions costing the state approximately $1.7 billion.

Cost isn’t the only factor weighing against California’s capital punishment system.  Studies also suggest that capital punishment is not a conclusive functional deterrent to crime.  One study by the National Research Council recommends that public officials not use studies interpreting homicide rates to legislate death penalty issues.  The Council explains that these studies usually have three fundamental flaws.  First, they do not factor in the number of noncapital punishments that may be imposed.  Second, the studies use incomplete or implausible models of potential murderers’ perceptions of and response to the use of capital punishment.  Finally, the estimates of the effect of capital punishment are based on statistical models that make assumptions that are not credible.

Beyond deterrence, perhaps the most compelling factor that undermines the use of capital punishment is the increasingly high number of wrongful convictions cases.  To date, five men who were sentenced to death in California have later been found innocentThe reasons for conviction in the cases range from prosecutorial misconduct to ineffective representation and insufficient evidence.  Given the finality of capital punishment, even one wrongful conviction should have California voters thinking twice about Proposition 34 at the polls this November. 
The decision California voters have in front of them this year on Election Day is monumental.  In a state where budget concerns have been an issue for years, it only seems logical that the outdated, money-sucking capital punishment system should be abolished.  If California does abolish the death penalty, then the remaining few states that have also been considering abolition may choose to follow suit.  Voters who have previously supported the death penalty in embracing the mantra, “Let the punishment fit the crime,” should consider the overwhelming evidence suggesting that the system is ineffective in preventing crime, cost prohibitive, and unjust.

Ali Eacho
Junior Blog Editor, Criminal Law Brief 


  1. I have to agree that I believe the death penalty should be abolished in California. Whatever people believe about the sanctity of life as a reason for or against the policy, I believe it has to be looked at from a purely economic standpoint. California is in one of the worst economic crises the State has seen and there is no reason to keep a policy such as this. Especially since so few people actually have their punishment carried out; the state is just paying more for each prisoner that is on death row when they are effectively serving a life sentence.

  2. Another financial consideration not mentioned in the article is the exceedingly exorbitant cost of the drugs for lethal injection. The drugs classically used by states are becoming more scarce, and thus more expensive. Just another added expense for the states to consider in whether to continue the death penalty.

  3. Most of what the proponents argue to support the proposition are simply false. The provisions in addition to banning the death penalty achieve nothing, but serve as bribes to get the conservative votes of those who haven't investigated the proposition thoroughly.

    The 729 on death row murdered at least 1,279 people, including 230 children. 43 were police officers. 211 were raped, 319 were robbed, 66 were murdered in execution-style killings, and 47 were tortured. 11 murdered other inmates.

    No “savings” & Increased Violence. Alleged savings ignore increased life-time medical costs, which often double during the last 25 years of life and in some cases exceed $1 million a year. The alleged savings also requires housing these killers in less-restrictive prisons where they share cells. Proponents also want to provide them opportunities for work, where they have more freedom, access to other inmates and guards, and more chances to make weapons.

    Michael Genest, former State Of California Finance Director, reported:

    While I credit the LAO for a fair and impartial attempt to quantify the costs and savings that may result from the enactment of Proposition 34, the savings claims of the proponents of the measure are grossly exaggerated.

    The LAO’s official ballot pamphlet analysis pegs the net savings to state and local governments combined at $100 million annually, growing eventually to $130 million. While I think that the LAO made a good faith effort to guess at what the fiscal effects would be, their estimate is based on a few key assumptions about which they acknowledge there is substantial uncertainty and which may well be wrong.

    Moreover, the absence of the threat of a death penalty could substantially increase the total number of murder trials by taking away a major incentive for murderers to plead guilty. based on a study by a California organization, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, is that elimination of the death penalty would reduce plea bargains and increase trials in murder cases by 11%. That would mean trials and appeals in over 140 additional murder cases a year, an added expense that could completely eliminate the savings from trying a much smaller number of cases as life-imprisonment rather than capital cases.

    No “accountability.” The proponents claim that inmates will have to work and pay their victims. The maximum earnings for any inmate would amount to $383/year (assuming 100% of earnings went to victims), divided by the number of qualifying victims. Hardly accounts for murdering a loved one.

    No “full enforcement” as 729 inmates do not receive the penalty given them by jurors. Also, for the 34,000 inmates serving life sentences, there will be NO increased penalty for killing a guard or another inmate. They’re already serving a life sentence. This should scare the hell out of any prison guard. Also, efforts are also being made to get rid of life sentences. (Human Rights Watch, Old Behind Bars, 2012.) On 9/30/12, Brown passed the first step, signing a bill to allow 309 inmates with life sentences for murder to be paroled after serving 25 years. Life without parole is meaningless. Remember Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. While not released, they have been up for parole several times despite initially receiving a death sentence. Governors are also notorious for releasing inmates who should never be released. Convicted killers get out and kill again, such as Darryl Thomas Kemp, Kenneth Allen McDuff, and Bennie Demps.

    Arguments of innocence bogus. Proponents can’t identify one innocent person executed in CA. They can’t identify one person on CA’s death row who has exhausted his appeals and has a plausible claim of innocence. See http://cadeathpenalty.webs.com/ and http://voteno34.org/ for more facts explaining why you should not be supporting Prop. 34.

  4. A jury of 12 people & a judge confirmed for each inmate that their crimes were so atrocious and they were so dangerous that they not only did not deserve to live, but they were so dangerous that the only safe recourse was the death penalty. Recognizing how dangerous these killers are, the prison houses them 1 person to a cell and does not provide them with work, leaving them locked in their cells most of the day.

    Prop. 34 wants to ignore all of this and save $ by placing these killers in less-restrictive prisons where they share cells. They also want to provide them opportunities for work, where they have more freedom, access to other inmates and guards, & more chances to make weapons.

    Prop. 34 also destroys any incentive for the 34,000 inmates already serving life without parole to kill again. There would be no death penalty. They are already serving a life sentence, so why not get a name by killing another inmate or a guard?

    Prop. 34 also takes away the money for inmates to challenge their convictions. If innocent, they will spend the rest of their life in jail, celled with vicious killers. Prop. 34 will cause more deaths of innocent people– guards and people wrongfully convicted but no longer able to fight it in court.

    And they refer to Prop. 34 as the SAFE Act!

  5. thanks for share.