There are many very bad, dangerous people on California’s death row. Among the more than 700 inmates awaiting execution are people who have murdered and tortured. In many cases, their crimes are beyond the imagination.
They deserve to be executed for their crimes. But they almost surely won’t be. Instead, they will sit on death row for years. And years. And years. The likelihood of them dying of old age or disease is much greater than the chance they’ll be subjected to lethal injection, or any other legal means of execution.
California has not executed anyone since 2006, when a legal challenge to the state’s lethal injection procedures halted executions. Based on state and federal constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment, the dispute involves the chemicals used in executions and who administers them.
Other court rulings have periodically halted executions in the state. But California voters in 1978 reinstated the death penalty. Since then, only 15 people have been executed, 103 have died in prison, and 64 had their sentences reduced by the courts.
But other factors have postponed executions. Inmate appeals and court filings can take many years to wend their way through state and federal courts. While they wait, death row inmates are housed in a costly, high-security facility, and in single-tenant cells. Their supervision is labor-intensive. Their cases are reopened repeatedly.
Supporters of Propositions 62 and 66, which appear on the November ballot, agree on one thing: California’s death penalty system is broken.
We agree. Prop. 62, which will abolish California’s death penalty, should be passed. Prop. 66, which will speed up the process, should be defeated.
The state legislative analyst estimates that taxpayers eventually may save about $150 million a year if the death penalty is abolished. The savings come from reduced state and county costs related to murder trials, legal challenges to death sentences and prison costs.
Prop. 62 proposes to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Prisoners would no longer “enjoy” the exclusive treatment afforded them on death row. They would be housed with other prisoners and they would be required to work. Much of their earnings would go to their victims.
If voters approve Prop. 62, California will join 19 other states and the District of Columbia in abolishing a death penalty. States that no longer have a death penalty include New Mexico, North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, West Virginia, New York, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Alaska and Hawaii.
Some of these states abolished their death penalties many decades ago, while others did so in recent years. Illinois, for example, abolished its death penalty in 2011 after advocacy projects revealed innocent people were being sentenced to death. Advances in evidence examination, including the use of DNA evidence, exonerated some wrongfully accused people.
Certainly a moral argument — the Illinois case is but one example — can be made for abolishing the death penalty. But also consider some practical ones.
Ending the death penalty will end the waste of millions of tax dollars a year that should fund public services. And a life sentence without parole will give crime victims and their families more immediate closure. Waiting endlessly for an execution to take place is not closure; neither is reopening the wounds inflicted by the original crime, as is the case when inmates appeal their cases.
Supporters of Prop. 66 contend they can fix California’s death penalty by limiting appeals and expanding the pool of attorneys who represent death row inmates. They would have local trial courts handle some inmate proceedings and set a limit on the time for court hearings. Prop. 66 was drafted primarily by prosecutors, correctional officers and crime victim advocates.
Noting state and local costs could increase with the proposed accelerated schedule and court processes, the state’s legislative analyst was unable to calculate the financial impact of Prop. 66. Future cost-savings may be realized if the result is fewer inmates languishing on death row. But that likelihood is uncertain as executions are still being halted by disputes over the way they are being conducted. And the ambiguities of Prop. 66 also will likely provoke costly court battles.
In addition, Prop. 66 will have no impact on the federal courts, where death penalty delays are common.
Consider the case of Lawrence Bittaker. Now 75, Bittaker was convicted and sentenced to death in 1981 for murdering and torturing five girls, ages 13 to 18. Prop. 66 will have no impact on Bittaker’s case.
Briefs filed in Bittaker’s federal habeas corpus appeal nine years ago reportedly remain on the desk of a federal judge, who ceased hearing cases full time in 2005. Bittaker is in no hurry for the federal judge to rule. He’s kicking back on death row.
It’s time to end this madness. Vote yes on Prop. 62 and no on Prop. 66.