September 14, 2012

Editorial: End the death penalty: Yes on Proposition 34

On the November ballot, California voters will be presented with Proposition 34, which would end the state's death penalty and instead require mandatory life sentences, without parole, for condemned inmates.

Voters should approve Prop. 34, for all the reasons we've laid out in editorials this week.

The death penalty in California is a farce. It isn't being carried out with any consistency or equal application across counties. Proponents have spent decades trying to speed up executions, including creating a Habeas Corpus Resource Center in 1998.

Even so, California has executed only 13 condemned murderers since 1992, when executions resumed after the reinstatement of the death penalty. During that time, 84 inmates have died on death row, leaving 729 awaiting an execution that, for most them, is sure to never come.

Even if California could somehow speed up executions, there is no evidence nationally that capital punishment serves as a deterrent to violent crime. There is evidence, however, that judges and juries have occasionally convicted the wrong person of a capital crime, resulting in an innocent person being sent to death row and even executed.

Proponents say California could modify its death penalty laws to carry out executions as expeditiously as Texas. But we'd do so risking the same kind of legal errors and unequal application that has tarnished Texas' judicial system.

Proposition 34 would end the death penalty and the costly edifice that California has created to carry out the 1978 law. According to the Legislative Analyst's Office, the end of the death penalty would save California courts $50 million annually for appellate litigation involving death row inmates. County jails and courts would save money, since death penalty cases are much more expensive to carry to trial. Corrections officials would not need to proceed with an expensive upgrade to the death row at San Quentin State Prison.

Altogether, ending the death penalty would save California about $100 million in the first few years, and about $130 million in subsequent years, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office.

Under Proposition 34, prisoners on death row would be resentenced to a prison term of life without the possibility of parole. Like all murderers, they would be given jobs in prison, unless they posed too great a risk to participate in work programs. As is the case with other murderers, these inmates would have their pay deducted for any debts they owe to victims of crime.

Supporters of the death penalty oppose this initiative for a variety of reasons. They say it would be an affront to families of crime victims, and to juries who engaged in agonizing deliberations before handing down a death penalty verdict.

We respect those concerns, but would argue that juries and crime victims aren't being served by an unfixable death penalty system that rarely carries out executions. It should also be noted that there are families of crime victims who oppose the death penalty, arguing that a state that claims to abhor violence should not be engaging in it.

One provision in Prop. 34 is problematic. The initiative would set up a special fund where the savings from ending the death penalty would be reserved for special crime-fighting grants. A total of $100 million would flow into the SAFE California Fund over four years, which could be used by police departments, sheriffs and district attorneys offices for the purpose of "increasing the rate at which homicide and rape cases are solved," according to the measure.

This provision is well-intended, but much of California's budget problems can be traced to similar forms of ballot-box budgeting. Proposition 34's sponsors should have avoided the temptation to add this provision, but we understand why they did so. They were trying to counter arguments that death penalty opponents are "soft on crime" by ensuring that potential cost savings were reserved for law enforcement.

Capital punishment stirs powerful emotions, and undoubtedly the campaign for and against Proposition 34 will be passionate on both sides. Even so, we hope death penalty supporters won't engage in some of the tactics we've seen from them previously.

Just because you oppose the death penalty doesn't mean you want to "save" heinous murderers such as Richard "the Night Stalker" Ramirez or serial killer Robert Rhoades, or that you don't care about victims' families. We recognize there are horrendous monsters on death row. But we aren't convinced that, with current law or any number of possible "fixes," they will ever be subject to the sentences they received.

If California were to implement life sentences with no possibility of parole, high-profile murderers such as Ramirez and Rhoades would no longer get the attention they crave and often receive on San Quentin's death row.

They'd live out their lonely days behind bars and die in relative obscurity. That would be a just end, and one that we all could count on.

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