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The Tide is Turning on California's Death Penalty

James Clark,
ACLU of Southern California
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May 10, 2011

The ongoing debacle of California’s death penalty took a few dramatic turns last week: a new poll showed a dramatic shift in public opinion in favor of ending the death penalty; Gov. Jerry Brown took a step in the right direction by cutting plans for a new death row; and the Department of Corrections announced that the state’s hold on executions will last at least through this year, if not longer. At the same time, the California Democratic Party pushed even further in their advocacy against the death penalty. All told, it’s got people asking if California is finally ready to “cut” the death penalty.

First thing’s first: the poll. David Binder Research conducted a poll of highly likely California voters and found that a strong majority — 63 percent — support Gov. Brown cutting the death penalty from the budget by converting the 713 existing death sentences to life imprisonment without parole, plus work and restitution for victims’ families. The support cuts across California’s geographic and political spectrums — majorities in all regions and all political affiliations agreed. The simple reason is that cutting the death penalty will save $1 billion in five years, and voters from Eureka to San Diego, whether right, left or moderate, can all figure out better ways to spend those billion dollars.

Last Thursday, Gov. Brown went halfway to fulfilling the voters’ wishes. Well, really it was a little more than a third of the way, since the governor’s decision to scrap the state’s plans for what some legislator’s called a “Cadillac death row” saved California $350 million. Saying that it was “unconscionable” to spend so much money on death row inmates while children and seniors are facing drastic cuts, Gov. Brown decided (just like the rest of us) that there are better ways to use the state’s dwindling dollars than on the death penalty. The only problem is that he didn’t finish the job — now he’s left the existing death row overcrowded and growing.

In fact, the death row construction project survived for so long because it was viewed as the cheapest option to deal with the problems on death row, including the fact that it is full beyond capacity and the facility is falling apart. The state has to do something, and all the other options on the table cost even more money. The only thing that will actually prevent the state paying more money on prison construction is for the governor to convert all death sentences to life imprisonment without parole, a move that would also save hundreds of millions, including reducing housing costs for death-row inmates and legal fees for their representation.

Also last week, state attorneys informed a federal judge that they weren’t going to try to execute anyone until at least next year, meaning California’s five-year-long hold on executions will continue for at least another year. Executions were halted because California made so many mistakes in carrying out the small number of executions that have happened, but that’s just one of the problems clogging up California’s machinery of death. Almost half the people on death row don’t even have one of the attorneys needed to challenge the death sentence.

Fed up with California’s costly and ineffective death penalty, Democratic activists and delegates descended on the California Democratic Party Convention in Sacramento last weekend to urge the party to call on Gov. Brown to convert death sentences to life imprisonment without parole. After a groundswell of grassroots support for cutting the death penalty, more than 650 party delegates (around a third of the delegates present) signed the resolution. By the end of the convention, the resolution had been referred with strong support to the executive board, and many members of the party’s leadership agreed to urge the governor to finish the job he started and save a full $1 billion. Chairman John Burton expressed the need for the party to stand united in its call for the governor to cut the death penalty and for all Democrats to stay true to their platform which already supports replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment.

Is anyone picking up on a theme here? The dominoes are falling fast as more and more people in California are learning what a waste the death penalty has become. They know people have spent 30 years trying to make it work quickly, efficiently, cheaply, and fairly, and they have failed. Even major news sources like the Los Angeles Times and Silicon Valley Mercury News have seen the obvious, with the L.A. Times writing an exasperated call to “Just abolish it.” Take action now to join the growing movement by telling Jerry Brown to CUT THIS!

The governor was absolutely right to call our spending on the death penalty in these times of crisis what it is: “unconscionable.” Tell the governor cut the death penalty today, and protect funding for schools and vital services for all Californians.

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