California Set to Debate Abolition of Capital Punishment


A coalition of murder victims’ family members, law enforcement officials, former prison wardens, and advocates for criminal justice reform recently launched a campaign to place an initiative on the November 2012 ballot to replace the death penalty in California with a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. Public opinion is shifting in the cash-strapped state, where voters could abolish the expensive and little-used punishment next year.

A recent study conducted by a federal judge and a law professor found that California has spent $4 billion to carry out 13 executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, or $308 million per execution. Abolishing the death penalty could save the state $1 billion in five years.

California has not executed anyone since 2006, shortly before a federal judge halted executions because of the state’s inability to put in place execution procedures that meet legal requirements.

A Field Poll released in September showed, for the first time, that more California voters would prefer that someone convicted of first-degree murder serve life without the possibility of parole than would prefer the death penalty.

The campaign for the SAFE California Act has collected 240,000 signatures so far and expects to exceed the 504,000 signatures required by March 18 to put the referendum on the ballot.

Former San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford, who presided over four executions for the State of California, is speaking out in support of reform. She said that regardless of one’s moral position on capital punishment, the evidence shows it to be an utter failure of public policy. Life-without-parole is less expensive than capital punishment; more punishing to killers; offers clear legal closure for victims’ families; does not subject prison employees to the emotional trauma of executions; and can be ended if a convict is exonerated later, she said.

Ms. Woodford also noted in a recent presentation that New York State, which has no death penalty, has seen a major drop in crime rates by investing heavily in law enforcement, drug treatment, and rehabilitation programs, while the death penalty has shown no significant public safety benefit in states that rely heavily on it, like Texas.

Reform advocates and policymakers in Maryland, Kansas, Ohio, and Connecticut are also set to take up death penalty repeal legislation in 2012.

The high cost of the death penalty, together with serious concerns about its reliability and questions about its usefulness in promoting public safety, has led a number of states to change their laws. Most recently, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, who oversaw two executions, suspended the state’s death penalty. “I do not believe that those executions made us safer,” he said last month. “Certainly I don’t believe they made us more noble as a society.”

Illinois, New Jersey, and New Mexico recently abolished the death penalty because of similar concerns about its flawed administration and lack of reliability. New York’s death penalty statute was struck down as unconstitutional in 2004 and has not been reinstated.