Proposition 34, Death Penalty
Polls show growing support for Proposition 34, an initiative to repeal the death penalty in California, but passage still remains unlikely at this time. Current law makes first-degree murder punishable by either death or life in prison without the possibility of parole when special circumstances are proven. Those circumstances include murder carried out for financial gain, one that was especially heinous or one committed during other enumerated activities. Proposition 34 proposes to remove the death sentence option for those newly convicted and apply the law retroactively to those already sentenced.
Arguments for repeal of the death sentence, which are gaining traction, are based primarily on financial considerations rather than moral opposition. Avoiding the high costs of mandatory appeals processes that can run for decades has become appealing in this time of economic austerity. Also, the growing use of DNA evidence, which has freed death row inmates in some states and shown the innocence of others who have been executed, raises concerns over executing innocent people.
Death penalty cases are automatically appealed and can involve expensive challenges in both state and federal courts including the U.S. Supreme Court. Both state and county governments incur costs related to murder trials including court and prosecution costs as well as for defense of those who cannot afford private legal counsel. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates annual savings, principally from legal process, would be around $130 million annually. The LAO also estimates the additional costs of housing death row inmates for life, given the length of the appeals process, would be moderate and “more than offset by the savings generated by not having to house hundreds of inmates on death row. ... It is generally more expensive to house an inmate under a death sentence than an inmate subject to life without the possibility of parole, due to higher and more expensive security measures [required] to house and supervise [them].”
Opponents of repeal rebut the LAO arguments, saying that taxpayers should not be paying to house, feed and provide health care for those who have committed heinous crimes, even though historically taxpayers have been paying for inmate care for extended periods,
According to the LAO, 900 people have received death sentences since the current law was enacted in 1978. Fourteen of those 900 have been executed, 75 have had their sentences reduced and 83 have died in prison. The remaining 728 remain housed in separate cells and must be escorted at all times when outside their cells.
The initiative proposes that felons whose death penalty is converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole as a result of passage of the measure would be required to work while in prison and have their pay deducted for debts owed to victims’ compensation funds. It would also establish a $100 million “Safe California Fund,” transferred from the state General Fund over the next four years, to support grants to police and sheriff’s departments and district attorneys’ office to increase resources for investigating murders and rapes.
The initiative also allows the California Supreme Court to transfer all existing death penalty direct appeals and habeas corpus petitions to the state’s courts of appeal or superior courts. These courts would resolve issues remaining after conversion of sentence from death to life without the possibility of parole.
Supporters include former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil, Garcetti, Jeanne Woodford, former warden of San Quentin State Prison American Civil Liberties Union and the California Democratic Party.
Opponents include former Governor Pete Wilson, Marc Klaas, father of Polly Klaas, Carl Adams, president of the California District Attorneys Association and the California Republican Party.
Proposition 36, Three Strikes Reform Act
Polls show Proposition 36, which makes modest changes in the three strikes law, is headed for passage by a significant margin. Observers note that support is large because proposed changes revise the law in ways that could keep the current law’s deterrents in place, save the state money and open more prison cells to the most serious offenders.
The initiative proposes to make the third strike, for most nonviolent offenses, not an automatic trigger for a sentence of 25 years to life. It also allows review of sentencing for those currently serving life sentences for a third strike.
Current law allows a third strike conviction for a nonserious or nonviolent offense such as possession of marijuana or petty theft to trigger the 25 to life sentence. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that passage could save the state $70 to $90 million annually by reducing prison populations.
Proponents argue that passage would make room in already overcrowded prisons, under federal order to reduce populations, for those who are truly dangerous criminals. Approximately 3,000 of 9,000 third strikers would be eligible for sentence review if the measure passes. Steve Cooley, Republican Los Angeles District Attorney supports passage by saying, “The punishment should fit the crime.” Conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist also supports passage calling the initiative, “tough on crime without being tough on taxpayers.”
Opponents argue that the third strike is just that, the final offense in a pattern that shows a proclivity to commit crimes and a recidivist nature. If inmates are released under the guidelines proposed by the initiative, opponents argue they would commit future crimes because of criminal patterns they have already demonstrated. They also note that current prisoners will inundate the courts with appeals, the cost of which has not been calculated.
There are caveats built into the proposal that are intended to prevent the release of any criminal who remains a demonstrable danger to the general public and to normalize enforcement of the law throughout the state, including review by judge before sentence reduction and exclusion of consideration of any criminal convicted of murder, rape or child molestation.
Supporters include: Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeffrey Rosen, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the California Democratic Party.
Opponents include: the California Republican Party, Keith Royal, president of the California State Sheriff’s Association; and Carl Adams, president of the California District Attorneys Association.