California Voters May Get Chance to Weigh in on Death Penalty


California State Senator Loni Hancock (D-Alameda) recently introduced Senate Bill 490, which seeks to abolish the death penalty in California. This is the first time that the California Legislature has considered the issue of capital punishment since the current statute was enacted in 1978.

After Gregg vs. Georgia reinstated capital punishment nationwide, California voters approved the current death penalty law in a referendum. To amend that law, SB 490 must be approved by the voters because state law mandates that referendums can only be repealed at the ballot box.

If California voters approve SB 490, first-degree murder with one or more special circumstances will be punished by life without the possibility of parole. The death penalty option would no longer be available. Additionally, the state would halt future executions and commute all existing death sentences to life without parole.

The impetus for this effort comes from a Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review article authored by U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Senior Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School Los Angeles Adjunct Professor of Law Paula M. Mitchell. Their study contended that the abolition of capital punishment in California could save the state $1 billion dollars every five or six years. The study also found that “the state’s 714 death row prisoners cost $184 million more per year than those sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

Don Heller, the author of the original enacting initiative, supports Senator Hancock’s bill. Heller has since come to “fervently believe” that capital punishment should be abolished. He says that when the law was drafted in 1978, his office grossly underestimated the costs to the state. He argues that each execution since the death penalty was reinstated under that law has cost the state $330 million, and it’s simply not worth it. It should be noted that the American Law Institute, which promulgates the Model Penal Code (upon which many states base their own statutes), has also reversed its position, taking capital punishment out of the model code.

Senator Hancock’s bill cleared its first hurdle this week, when it passed through the Public Safety Committee. Heller testified at that hearing along with Jeanne Woodford, the former warden of San Quentin Penitentiary, which houses California’s death row and execution chamber. Woodford has since had a dramatic change of heart and now works as Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus, an organization committed to the abolition of the death penalty. [Disclaimer: I sit on the Board of Directors for DPF. I happily admit to being biased.]

The bill must still survive the Appropriations Committee, as well as the Assembly and Senate floor, before it arrives on Governor Brown’s desk. If the governor signs it, the initiative will be placed on the 2012 ballot for approval by the voters of California.

There has never been a better time to bring the impact of continuing our current system of capital punishment before the voters of California. As we seek to close our recurring budget deficit, abolishing the death penalty may be more humane and fiscally responsible than increasing college tuition, cutting social services for people in need, and gutting the primary education system. Republicans who refuse to raise taxes should embrace this solution to save billions of dollars over the next decade without giving up anything but a hollow symbol of vengeance. This law would not reduce prosecutions for murder or let convicted murderers out on the street. All it accomplishes is to shut down an inefficient, byzantine system of appeals that never actually leads to execution. Let the voters decide if one dead bad guy is worth $330M. My guess is that plenty of other priorities exist. We should follow the responsible course and let go of the death penalty.