Life or death: It is one of California’s longest-running, most intense political controversies.
It’s been more than 30 years since the death penalty was reinstated in California, but only 13 inmates have been executed. Over 700 prisoners now sit on Death Row – the men at San Quentin, a handful of women at Chowchilla -- sometimes for decades to await their judgment day.
The years of waiting for hundreds of condemned prisoners has created a system that many feel is far too expensive, does little to deter violent crime and squanders dwindling public resources. But for those seeking justice and closure after their loved ones have perished as a result of an encounter with one of those now sentenced to die, California's death penalty also offers retribution – an eye for an eye -- when all hope for rehabilitation is nonexistent.
In November, California will decide whether to abolish capital punishment. Anti-death penalty forces collected more than 800,000 signatures on petitions to qualify the proposal for the ballot and now the voters will weigh in.
For Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin Prison, there is little doubt that the death penalty needs to go.
Woodford, the executive director of Death Penalty Focus, oversaw four executions while she headed San Quentin. She now calls California’s death penalty a “colossal public safety failure” that “does not make our families or our neighborhoods any safer.”
The permission to end the life of a human being as punishment for the most grievous of offenses is a right that the citizens of California give to their government with the hopes that the threat of death will deter future horrific and violent acts from occurring in the first place. Capital punishment represents the single greatest power that society gives to the state.
That the death penalty represents a moral dilemma is clear. But it also represents a financial dilemma as the costs mount to maintain the largest death row in the western hemisphere.
According to a study published in the Los Angeles Law Review, California has spent approximately $4 billion on the trials, appeals and incarceration of its death row inmates since 1978. In 2010, California spent $70 million just to incarcerate the inmates on death row alone, a figure which does not include the additional costs related to mandatory capital punishment court appeals. The cases of the 13 inmates who were executed cost the state about $300 million each, according to the study.
In fact, California has not executed a death row inmate since 2006 due to a federal court order surrounding the use of a three-drug cocktail during the lethal injection procedure. With all the questions surrounding the viability of the future of the death penalty California, proponents of the November ballot measure believe it's time to ask the voters if they want to change course.
They will decide the fate of what if officially dubbed the “Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement Act.” The proposal would repeal the death penalty and retroactively sentence all of the current inmates on death row to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
It would also establish life in prison as the new maximum sentence allowable in the state. Those sentenced to life would be required to obtain prison employment while incarcerated, with their wages paid to the families of their victims as restitution. Also, monies saved by the state would be used to create a $100 million fund to help law-enforcement agencies solve homicide and rape cases.
Supporters of the death penalty say what’s needed is reform, not repeal.
Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a group that supports the death penalty and works throughout the nation to remove legal obstacles that delay executions, thinks that the question should not be repeal versus the status quo, rather that it should be repeal versus reform.
“If our Legislature would pass appropriate reforms, we could carry out these judgments in six years, at far less cost than we presently incur,” says Scheidegger. “The problems in the system are in the length of time it takes between sentence and execution. Murderers are the only ones who would benefit from (this) repeal.”
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, disagrees. He believes the people of California would reap the benefits of death penalty repeal on multiple fronts.
“Over the next five years, (the people of California) would have close to $1 billion freed up for critical need in the state,” argues Dieter. “More money could be spent to solve cold cases, to enhance crime prevention measures, and to provide resources for victims’ families. No longer would victims’ families have to face the decades of appeals typical in death penalty cases. Instead, defendants would start serving their sentence immediately.”
“We live in a state where nearly half of all murders and over half of all reported rapes go unsolved every year,” she said. “SAFE California has one focus: public safety. We need to bring murders and rapists to justice and hold them accountable for their crimes by ensuring that they spend the rest of their lives in prison with no chance of parole.”
Polls show that Californians have moved closer towards Woodford’s stance over the past decade but that a majority also still support the death penalty. In 2000, only 37 percent of registered voters in the state felt that life in prison without parole was the appropriate sentence for a defendant found guilty of first-degree murder, according to the Field Poll. Last year, that number had jumped to 48 percent. But in that same year, 68 percent of voters still favored keeping the death penalty as an option for California’s capitol offenders.
If the state’s fiscal woes continue to worsen, and voters see the SAFE act as a means to help stop the proverbial bleeding, California may be on the verge of joining the five other states that have abolished the death penalty in the past five years.
But with the gruesome stories on the nightly news depicting murder and mayhem throughout the state, eliminating the ultimate penalty could still be too big a pill to ask the people to swallow.