by Danielle Crume
Proposition 34, titled the “Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act,” is a bill designed to repeal, or ban, the use of capital punishment in California. It seems that if the overwhelming majority of Californians wanted the death penalty repealed, they would title it in a more obvious manner. The bill replaces death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and requires the convicted to work in prison to compensate the families of their victims. Prop 34 also promises to provide $100 million to law enforcement to help solve backlogged murder cases. This proposition is but another piece of an ongoing battle between the anti-death penalty left and the pro-death penalty right.
Until the early 1970s, the history of California’s use of the death penalty had been straightforward and uncomplicated by legal disputations. In April 1972, the California Supreme Court ruled in People v. Anderson that the death penalty was unconstitutional on the basis of cruel and unusual punishment. Later that year, California voters instilled Proposition 17, which made death sentences mandatory in certain cases. This decision was invalidated in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled capital punishment unconstitutional. However, by the next year, the U.S. Supreme Court reconsidered its decision. By 1978, voter- initiated Proposition 7 fully reinforced the statute, broadening the penal code and allowing the Supreme Court to review the cases. Although Proposition 7 is the current death penalty statute, the Federal court has placed a moratorium on executions since 2006 due to the process of the execution itself and its ethicality.
Because of this ongoing, heavily politicized battle, several death row inmates have had their executions unnecessarily delayed, primarily by activist, Clinton-appointed U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel. * As a federal judge for the Northern District of California, he instilled the moratorium and halted the scheduled execution of convicted murderer Michael Morales in 2006. Fogel objected to the procedural administration of the lethal injection, citing that if not done by a medical professional, it could be done incorrectly and cause pain to the condemned. In 2010, Albert Brown’s execution stayed for similarly asinine reasons. After Morales’ delayed execution, prison authorities rebuilt gas chambers and restricted their method of selecting their execution team to comply with Fogel’s various demands in regards to complying with humane practices and the method of administration. No longer having this reasoning to deny the execution, Fogel then used the power of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to intervene just two days before Brown’s scheduled date, stating he needed more time “to render a reasoned decision and permit adequate appellate review.” Conveniently, one of the three drugs that was to be used on Brown was about to expire, and so Fogel did not come to a decision until it expired. Thus, the execution could not be carried out until a new supply of the drug arrived, which would not be until 2011. Officials cited that they could not carry on because that particular drug was used to anesthetize the convict, and it would be cruel and unusual punishment without it.
As shown with the cases of Morales and Brown, the courts continue to circumvent the will of the people through sly technicalities and inane loopholes. Their executions weren’t delayed because their guilt was questionable, but because the judge simply did not want them to be carried out. The people have voted in the death penalty, and that is the law of the land. These courts defy their purpose to enforce the law to further their own political views and interests. The statistics and arguments that opponents of the death penalty commonly use are gathered from former 9th Circuit judge Arthur Alarcon, who, like his fellow 9th Circuit judges, purport a liberal agenda to actively inhibit or delay the carrying out of a death sentence.
It is because of this deliberate meddling that opponents ironically claim that the system is “broken” and thus should be discarded. Legislation and the courts have instilled a purposely convoluted process that makes California’s wait from sentencing to execution an average 25 years, double than that of the national average. This process, with its endless, drawn-out appeals and lawsuits, drives up the costs substantially. Supporters of the death penalty propose streamlining the appeals process, which would lower the costs and shorten the process time. Opponents argue that streamlining raises the chances of sentencing an innocent man to death, because the endless appeals are now given a limit. Whether or not the appeals is too long, other main causes of California’s delays are attributed to the lack of qualified criminal lawyers to handle capital punishment appeals, and the flood of cases the State Supreme Court must review. If the penal code–which delineates crimes that warrant death penalty–was narrowed, then the bottleneck of Supreme Court cases would be relieved, and less lawyers would be needed for fewer appeals.
A way to combat execution delays like what Fogel created is to convert from a three-injection to a one-injection system, removing problems like needing all three drugs in supply or the risk of administering it incorrectly. Again, several states have adapted this one drug system that is constitutionally more humane. If the system was “fixed,” supporters argue that the death penalty would be cheaper than life in prison, the latter encompassing lifelong healthcare and living expenses subsidized by tax payers. Life sentences also do not stop defendants from going through the appeals process, and the court still has its fixed cost regardless of sentencing. Another phenomena both opponents and supporters take little notice of is the cost-saving plea bargaining affect. States that have the death sentence as maximum punishment will see defendants plead guilty to receive the lesser punishment of a life sentence, avoiding the cost of a trial seeking death penalty altogether.
Besides the main issue of death penalty in Proposition 34, the bill provides for a $100 million dollar “one time” expense taken from California’s General Fund. It will be dispersed over the course of three years and used as a fund for law enforcement to investigate backlogged violent cases, keep criminals off the street, and “protect families.” In addition, the inmates must earn restitution for victim’s families, as well as live in regular cells that cost less than the special solitary cells given to those on death row. This is a great, good-natured initiative, but nothing in the bill ensures that the money will be spent accordingly. California legislature has a past of making promises to allocate funds to a specific purpose, only to end up spending it on something else entirely. A notable example was the state’s raiding of local government funds after the 2008 economic collapse. Faced with severe budget crisis, the state stole from publicly subsidized redevelopment programs intended for towns to spend as they see fit. These programs, which were paid through local taxes, were designed to improve the condition of individual cities. Instead, the money went to help alleviate the massive California debt. A Proposition 22 was passed to prohibit state raiding, but now the government seeks to circumvent the amendment through the abolishment of redevelopment programs entirely. Thus, even with measures to prevent the improper spending of allocated funds, the state of California has and will continue to raid funds in accordance to its needs.
Realistically speaking, the many solutions and arguments offered by death penalty supporters have little chance of actually being applied to the system. California’s current political climate makes it unlikely that any productive changes will be made even if the proposition fails, and quixotic to expect the courts to modify their selective enforcement of the law. With the damaged system as it presently stands, if Prop 34 passes and is implemented perfectly to its fullest extent, it would most likely prove to be cost saving over the existing system.
Economics aside, moral arguments against the death penalty still stand. Is it right for man to consign his peer’s life to death? From a religious standpoint, many would argue it is the job of their god or higher authority to be the ultimate judge, not in the hands of his flawed fellow humans. Others question why it is in government’s power to condemn people at all. This authority would imply that the state rules superior over the individual, because it has the power to terminate an individual’s life. As a culture we have been raised to believe that killing another person is inherently wrong, and thus our society has instituted laws reflecting such. Why must the state and federal governments be an exception to this? If the government is allowed privilege to one of the most abhorrent and forbidden acts man can commit against another, then what other laws can it transcend? Over a span of incrementalism, there would be no stopping to whom the state can and cannot kill under this justification.
Murder Rates in Death Penalty States and Non-Death Penalty States
The death penalty reflects the unjust lex talionis barbarism of medieval culture; an “eye-for-an-eye” mentality only serves to stagnate the civilization of society. Instead of considering the ethical implications, society would focus on primal retribution at the expense of losing its humanity. Executing the murderer does not bring the victim back to their loved ones, so it does not necessarily bring closure or satisfaction. It also fails to deter such crimes, defeating an argument commonly proposed by death penalty supporters. As shown with the Death Penalty Information Center’s graph, states without capital punishment have had consistently lower murder rates than those that implement it from 1990 to 2009. If that is the case, then perhaps we should seek an alternative to efficiently deter crime. The passing of this proposition will by no means end the death penalty debate in the state of California. It is a divisive issue that will remain with us for years.
“The Truth About The Costs.” Vote No on 34: Preserve California’s Death Penalty Law. Californians For Justice And Public Safety, 2012. Web.
“Get The Facts About Prop 34.” Yes on 34: SAFE California. A Coalition of Justice Orgs., 2012. Web.
“History of Capital Punishment in California.” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. State of California, 2012. Web.
Harrison, James & et al. Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act. A Coalition of Justice Orgs, 2012. Web.
Scheidegger, Kent. “The Death Penalty and Plea Bargaining to Life Sentences.” Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, 2009. E-text.
Rushford, Michael. “Study: Cost Savings From Repeal Of Death Penalty May Be Elusive.” Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, 2009. Web.
Egelko, Bob. “Death Penalty Delay Built Into System.” The San Francisco Chronicle, 6 October 2012. Web.
Klaas, M. and Wagstaffe, S.M. “Ending Death Penalty Would Fuel Crime.” The San Francisco Chronicle. 15 August 2012. Web.
Garcetti, Gil. “End Death Penalty For Dollars And Sense.” The San Francisco Chronicle. 7 September 2012. Web.
Elias, Paul. “Albert Greenwood Brown Execution Blocked By Federal Judge In California.” The Huffington Post. 29 September 2012. Web.