The death penalty is broken in California. I have some reason to know I served as district attorney of Los Angeles County and attorney general of California.
In my job, I was responsible for the conviction of a good number of people who were sentenced to death. I have seen the continuous drain on resources that a capital case carries: more state money for prosecutors prosecuting and those defending these time-intensive cases; single-cell jail space for inmates; special security; years and years of appeals; and more, all for 13 executions in 30 years with more than 700 now on death row.
Years later, when I chaired the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, a nonpartisan group of experts who analyzed our justice system in 2008, I learned not only about the nearly 20-year delay from a guilty verdict to execution in death penalty cases, but the frailty of eyewitness identification, of false confessions brought about by intensive interrogations, and of the problems of jailhouse informants, each one of which can lead to wrongful convictions in serious cases.
Our commission recommended expenditure of more than $95 million of new funds to reduce death penalty delays while keeping constitutional requirements intact. The Legislature has done nothing with those recommendations.
And just last summer I learned, from a report by federal judge and former death penalty prosecutor Arthur L. Alarcon and law professor Paula Mitchell, that California has spent $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978. In his words, "We hope that California voters, informed of what the death penalty actually costs them, will cast their informed votes in favor of a system that makes sense."
I couldn't agree more.
In November, by supporting the SAFE California death penalty initiative, we can put the money saved toward apprehending the guilty and making our state a safer place for our families, while providing public protection by making those now subject to the death penalty go to life in prison without parole.
The system is broken and wasteful. Former Chief Justice of California Ronald George called it "dysfunctional." Newly appointed Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye agrees, telling the Los Angeles Times that keeping the death penalty structure as it exists now is the "worst possible option" and that it is "not working." Cantil-Sakauye is a former prosecutor herself, and she knows that time now given to death penalty cases could be better spent on the beleaguered courts that she oversees.
Overall, the death penalty doesn't make us safer better crime-solving can do that. I was recently inducted into the California Forensic Science Institute's Hall of Fame for my work in advancing forensic science tools such as our state's DNA database, which helps us find the guilty and exonerate the innocent. SAFE California will provide public protection by keeping those truly guilty of death penalty crimes locked up for life, and in the meantime saving us millions of dollars that will be invested in crime-fighting measures leading to the apprehension of serious criminals.
John Van de Kamp is the former attorney general of California, and the former Los Angeles County district attorney.