Abolition of the California Death Penalty May Become a Reality This November

by Amanda Padilla, A3A Project Manager


In November, voters will have the opportunity to take a stance on the death penalty through the SAFE California Act, officially Proposition 34. This initiative proposes to replace California’s death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. Additionally, inmates will be required to pay restitution to the victim’s compensation fund and a portion of the money saved from implementing life without parole will be allocated to law enforcement agencies with the intent to solve more violent crimes. There are multiple reasons as to why this act is important; but to fully understand the significance of the SAFE act it is first helpful to know some background information on the costs and implications of the death penalty in California. First, the death penalty is expensive due to the special conditions that death row inmates receive: they live in single-cell units and have specialized lawyers and appeals processes. In 2011, the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review published that in California:

  • The state's 714 death row prisoners cost $184 million more per year than those sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
  • A death penalty prosecution costs up to 20 times as much as a life-without-parole case.
  • The least expensive death penalty trial costs $1.1 million more than the most expensive life without-parole case.
  • Jury selection in a capital case runs three to four weeks longer and costs $200,000 more than in life-without-parole cases.
  • The state pays up to $300,000 for attorneys to represent each capital inmate on appeal.
  • The heightened security practices mandated for death row inmates added $100,663 to the cost of incarcerating each capital prisoner last year, for a total of $72 million.

According to SAFE, implementing life without parole would save California $1 billion in five years which could be invested in youth, elderly and disability services, schools, and law enforcement. So far, 17 states in the U.S. have eradicated the death penalty and as a result have allocated more money to social services.

Second, the death penalty infringes on basic human rights which is a large reason that over 2/3 of the worlds countries (139 total) have abolished the death penalty altogether. Furthermore, the U.S. is the only western country that still practices the death penalty (Amnesty International) which indicates that other Western countries believe that the death penalty, to some degree, violates the United Nation Deceleration of Human Rights amendment: "no one shall be subjected to cruel or degrading punishment." On a more general level, the death penalty is a punishment "inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error" (Human Rights Watch). Here in California, prejudice is one of the key reasons that groups oppose the death penalty as poor, minorities (namely African Americans) make up the majority of the prison populous. According to the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, African Americans are 12 percent of the U.S. population, but make up 42 percent of prisoners on death row. As HRW stated, this is partly due to prejudice and also due to the inability of the defendant to pay for an experienced lawyer. When the poor are charged with a crime there is literally no way for them to pay for the services they need to keep them off of death row and/or to secure an innocent verdict.

Stephen Bright, President of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said "The reality in the United States today is that representation by a capable attorney is a luxury, one few of those accused of a crime or in prison can afford. There is a temptation to give up hope that the poor person who faces the loss of life or liberty or languishes in prison will ever receive adequate representation. Legislatures will not pay for it, most courts will not order it, and most members of the bar are unwilling or financially unable to represent a poor person in a criminal case without adequate compensation.” Bright's statement speaks to the reality that poor defendants face while trying to obtain a fair trial in a prejudiced system. Prejudice against race and class, the death penalty as cruel and degrading punishment, the high possibility of an arbitrary trial and human error are all reasons that most human rights activists oppose the death penalty.

Third, wrongly convicted men and women have been executed as a result of the death penalty. According to the ACLU, more than 200 men and women have been wrongly convicted in the state of California and three of them have been sent to death row. “Every wrongful conviction is a tragedy, but the death penalty makes that tragedy irreversible…[wrongfully convicted cases] are the inevitable result of an imperfect system. As long as we have the death penalty we risk executing innocent people…” said Franky Carrillo in an article he wrote for the Huffington Post. Carrillo was wrongfully convicted of murder and served 20 years in prison before he was released. Assuming that the judicial and prison system remain “imperfect” as Carrillo states, innocent people will continue to pay with their life for a crime that they did not commit.

In California the SAFE act has garnered support from: law enforcement personnel, victims of a wrongful conviction, religious groups, families of victims, lawyers and an array of elected officials (including Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon). A detailed list of SAFE endorsers can be found by clicking here.

Though a recent poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 54% of Californians support the initiative there is also major opposition. The Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC) vehemently opposes the eradication of the death penalty; thus far, they have poured 40K into opposition advocacy measures. Other opposition includes the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) and the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. In an article by the CDAA, the rationale for opposing life without parole is described as such:

"The death penalty is the will of the people of California. It was restored by voter initiative in 1977, and every subsequent measure to expand its provisions, most recently with the addition of a gang-murder special circumstance in March 2000, has been overwhelmingly approved. The simple fact of the matter is that Californians want to reserve the ultimate punishment of death for those murderers whose actions so truly shock the conscience that life in prison is not adequate."

While the perceived inadequacy of life in prison has been the core argument for opposing groups, SAFE believes that, generally, such attitudes are changing due to the unique election climate. The economic crisis has made voters hyper sensitive to high costs, political leadership is ripe with support and 40% of voters this year are projected to be people of color and young adults (who generally oppose the death penalty). SAFE maintains that all these factors will play a significant role in November’s election.

If life without parole succeeds in November, SAFE will be able to focus on other public safety reform initiatives such as: reforms needed to prevent wrongful convictions, fair and equal treatment of victims, and unfair sentencing practices including “draconian” drug laws (long jail sentences for addicts).

To learn more about SAFE visit, http://www.safecalifornia.org/