There is a certain way humans respond to death. The death of a loved one is mourned; the death of a villain is celebrated. Either way, it is still death and we react to it with deeper emotions than we do to a lot of other things.
Last week, the California legislature announced the death penalty ban would appear on November’s ballot, turning the death sentences of roughly 725 inmates in state prisons into life without the possibility of parole.
The ballot measure has been named the “Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act,” or SAFE California Act.
Supporters argue too much money has been spent on prosecutors and the death row inmates’ defense attorneys during the appeals process; as well as the cost of maintaining the largest death row in the country, San Quentin prison. They say the funding could be better used to investigate unsolved crimes and give closure to families still seeking it.
But what is closure, really? We hear this term a lot; closure and justice. That’s the funny thing about death, we savor it when it’s “justified.” Families who have lost loved ones go to extreme lengths to ask for justice, and oftentimes death is included in their requests. Life in prison hardly seems like a threat when compared with death, and we certainly have enough repeat offenders to prove our prison system isn’t horrible. These days, the inmates in our state prisons may sometimes enjoy nicer amenities than lower and middle-income families struggling to put food on the table. How will the families feel about that?
In addition, without execution as an option, what will deter murderers and rapists from committing illegal acts?
According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, capital punishment does not deter crime: “Scientific studies have consistently failed to demonstrate that executions deter people from committing crime any more than long prison sentences. Moreover, states without the death penalty have much lower murder rates. The South accounts for 80 percent of U.S. executions, and has the highest regional murder rate.”
California’s finances are in need of help, and California has always made money its priority. Oh, wait.
Gov. Jerry Brown believes the speculated $100 million in savings would alleviate some of the stress of California’s never-ending budget crisis. Supporters of the November ballot measure believe the money will be shifted to law enforcement in order to help solve crimes. First, we vote on saving a speculated amount of money, and then California lawmakers will fight about how to spend it? Sounds about right.
Brown has always appeared to be opposed to capital punishment. For example, he convinced his father, who was governor at the time, to spare the life of the Red Light Bandit in 1960. He also protested Aaron Mitchell’s execution in 1967.
Will the initiative pass? The truth is, many people like the death penalty. While legislators are determining how to make money to spend money, voters have shown an appetite for capital punishment. Since 1978, all of California’s death penalty laws have been created using ballot measures. From that time until 2000, the number of crimes punishable by death has risen from 12 to 39, all at the hands of state voters.
This initiative, however, is the first with costs attached to it. Every time Californians have been asked to expand the death penalty, they were told the costs were “unknown” or “minor,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Now the numbers are on the table and voters will see a $100 million price tag on their ballot at the end of the year.
As of April 6, California has roughly 17 million registered voters in the state; of those, turnout in a general election is about 70 percent on average. In order for the ballot initiative to pass, a simple majority is needed. It takes 50 percent of voters plus one to abolish the death penalty. At that time, more than 700 state prison inmates will be transferred from death row to life in prison.