My Thoughts on the Death Penalty in California

Up until two months ago the death penalty in the United States was not a topic I had given much thought to, other than that I generally opposed it. In Colorado and Australia (where I grew up) the death penalty does not exist (although technically still in the books, only one person has been executed in Colorado since 1977, and Australia banned capital punishment in 1967).

I now live in California, where currently 725 people are on death row, but in the upcoming elections Proposition 34 is seeking to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. I’m strongly in favor of this initiative, and since my recent involvement with Amnesty International, I’ve been exposed to a lot of great information about why the death penalty is a fundamentally broken system. In this post I would like to share some of this information and where you can go to can learn more.

About Proposition 34

  • Seeks to replace California’s death penalty with a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole as the maximum punishment for murder. This will retroactively apply to the 725 people currently on death row.
  • Will create a $100 million dollar fund over the next four years to be given to law enforcement agencies to help solve more murders and rape cases (currently 46% murder and 56% rape cases go unsolved in California).
  • The current death penalty code and appeals process means on average it is 20 times more expensive to execute a prisoner rather than seek life imprisonment. Repealing the death penalty will save California $1 billion over the next five years.
  • Guarantees that California will never execute an innocent person. Since 1976 over 100 people have been wrongly accused of murder in the United States who would have otherwise been executed by the state.
  • Would immediately require every person conflicted of murder to work while imprisoned and their wages given to a victims restitution fund.
  • Read the full legal text of the initiative

About the Death Penalty in California

  • 13 people have been executed in California since 1977 (a further 56 death row inmates have died from natural causes while imprisoned)
  • In this time California spent $4 billion prosecuting death penalty cases
  • Currently executions in California have been halted since 2006 after the U.S. District Attorney found flaws in the state’s execution process. Inmates allege that the procedures expose them to cruel and unusual punishment (lethal injection is the current default procedure, but can lead to severe pain if administered incorrectly).
  • Capital offenses include:
    • Treason against the state of California
    • Perjury causing execution of an innocent person
    • First degree murder
    • Train wrecking which leads to a person’s death

Even most people in favor of the death penalty agree that the current system in California is broken. Spending $4 billion to kill 13 people is insane. It’s also worth noting that all 13 executed prisoners were conflicted of murder, and no evidence has been found exonerating them from their crimes.

Arguments to Keep The Death Penalty

All things being fair I want to share some of the arguments for keeping the death penalty:

  • Provides justice to grieving families of murder victims
  • Serves as a deterrent against murder and violent crimes
  • Life imprisonment leaves the possibility of escape or parole and the chance to kill again

The only argument here that resonates with me is the last one, but I’d like to see statistics related to escaped or paroled prisoners killing again and how big a problem this actually is (I couldn’t find anything online). Given the prolonged nature of death penalty trials (on average 25 years), justice is not being given to grieving families, and I don’t believe it has or ever will be an effective deterrent against murder. If I’m going to actually go through with killing someone, the death penalty is the least of my worries.

The most recent poll suggests that 50% of likely voters support Prop. 34, with 42% still in favor of the death penalty. These polls have also found that most people support the initiative based on the potential financial savings, which makes sense given the current state of California’s budget, but let’s not forget the moral arguments against the death penalty. If we all accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights then I can’t think of a more cruel and degrading punishment than taking a human life.

As a final thought I’d really like to encourage everyone to learn more about this initiative and make an informed decision for themselves. SAFE California is a good place to start and has a lot of great information. I also welcome your own thoughts on the death penalty and whether or not it should be repelled in California.