This isn’t the first time California has wrestled with the death penalty. Back in 1972, the state Supreme Court declared the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment. It was reinstated through a voter approved ballot measure six years later.
This time backers of Prop. 34 are pointing to both the personal and financial costs of the death penalty. First and foremost, they say there’s the risk of the state executing someone who is innocent. And they point to research by groups such as the Death Penalty Information Center, which says that more than 140 people across the country have been sentenced to death and then later exonerated — including three in California.
Former L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti said he supported the death penalty while serving as D.A., but now opposes it. “We make mistakes,” said Garcetti. “Prosecutors and judges and juries make mistakes on both sides. We can’t be dealing with this. When we have 725 people on death row, I have to believe there’s at least one, two, or three people who do not deserve to be on death row.”
And then there’s the finances. The state’s legislative analyst says doing away with the death penalty would save California $130 million a year over the long-term in trials, appeals, and special prison housing expenses. And under Prop. 34, the state would provide $100 million in grants to local law enforcement over the next four years to help solve rape and murder cases.
Proposition 34 critics say the death penalty is reserved for less than two percent of murderers in California — the worst of the worst; cases where juries unanimously agree on a sentence.
McGregor Scott is one critic. He’s a former US Attorney, former D.A. for Shasta County, and the co-chair for No on 34. He said there are other ways to fix the state’s death penalty system, including “things like enhanced funding for defense attorneys for capital cases,” said Scott. “We fully support that because that would allow appointment of counsel much faster, and it would allow these cases to move much more expeditiously.”
But backers of Proposition 34 say death row appeals in California take an average 25 to 30 years right now. In order to speed that up California would have to spend about another $95 million a year on more judges and more lawyers, according to Steve Smith of the Yes on 34 campaign. “If somebody’s condemned to death row, they generally die of old age,” Smith said. “They’re single-celled in cells that are actually nicer. Anytime they move around the prison, they require more guards. And they have endless amounts of appeals in court.” And he said that besides keeping inmates behind bars for the rest of their lives, Prop. 34 would eliminate the cost of special death row housing and force these inmates to work and pay restitution.
But Ann Marie Schubert with the No on Prop. 34 campaign doesn’t buy that. “They say they’re going to make killers work in prison. They’re not going to work. They’re the most dangerous people in the prison system,” Schubert said. Under state law, she said, inmates — including murderers — are already required to work. The exception is for prisoners who pose too great a security risk.
And Prop. 34 critics say that the measure would increase costs to the state by providing murderers with housing and healthcare for life — which they estimate would run at least $50 thousand per inmate per year.