Over the past decade, the death penalty has grown increasingly unpopular. In 2011, 43 inmates were executed nationwide. In 1999, Texas alone executed more than twice that number. And many states, including Connecticut, New Mexico, Illinois, and New Jersey, have recently abolished capital punishment. In California, executions have been halted since 2006, after the lethal injection protocol was declared unconstitutional. And this November, Prop 34 hopes to extend that moratorium indefinitely.
Proposition 34, also called the SAFE Act, proposes replacing the death penalty with life without possibility of parole. It would also earmark $100 million for investigating unsolved murders and rapes, and would force killers to work in prison to help pay restitution to victims. The debate is as impassioned as it is divisive, but there is one point on which most everyone agrees: The death penalty in California doesn’t work.
Since 1977, 750 people have been sentenced to death in California state courts, but only 13 have been executed, while 77 have died of natural causes or committed suicide. Yet despite its infrequent use, capital punishment has cost state taxpayers at least $4 billion in the past three decades. “We have spent all of this money pretending that people are going to be executed,” said Jeanne Woodford, an ex-warden at San Quentin State Prison and a backer of Prop 34.
Woodford also contends that California has gotten little back in return. “The death penalty does not improve public safety at all,” she said. “It is not a deterrent. It does nothing to better our lives in any way.”
Numerous studies back up Woodford’s assertions, showing that the death penalty has no discernible impact on crime. And that research rings true for San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, another vocal supporter of Prop 34. Gascón has worked in law enforcement for nearly three decades. When he became police chief in Mesa, Arizona, in 2006, the police department solved only 65 percent of homicides committed in the city. When Gascón left his post in 2009, the solve-rate was 95 percent. As San Francisco’s police chief, Gascón oversaw a similar trend. And while he has made reducing homicides a cornerstone of his policing career, he has never considered the death penalty to be a useful tool. “I’ve never seen a case where somebody that’s being prosecuted or investigated for murder says that the concept of facing the death penalty was even something they entertained,” he said.
But Gascón has seen instances in which people sentenced to death have later been found innocent. Over the past forty years, 130 death row inmates have been exonerated nationwide. To put that into perspective, for every ten inmates executed in the United States, one has been freed.
In San Francisco, two capital cases have recently been overturned. “Occasionally the criminal justice system fails,” Gascón noted. “And when that occurs, if the death penalty is administered, you can’t fix that.” That’s one of the main reasons why Gascón has yet to pursue the death penalty during his time as San Francisco’s District Attorney.
Another reason is the cost. If the death penalty were repealed, California could save $180 million a year, according to a Loyola law school study. “We could put more teachers in our classrooms, or more police on the streets,” said Woodford. “We could put our criminal justice dollars into things that actually work.”
Yet while many major police departments desperately need more funds, there is still strong opposition to Prop 34 from law enforcement agencies. Ron Cottingham, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, is one of the measure’s biggest critics. He contends that the arguments made against the death penalty are deceptive and exaggerated. “Capital punishment is very judiciously reviewed and applied,” he argued. “It’s only the worst-of-the-worst cases that are actually charged with a capital offense across California.”
Cottingham believes that the problem lies in the exhaustive appeals process. Once sentenced to death, convicts are entitled to a number of appeals under the law. The first is automatic, and it typically takes about a decade to run through the California Supreme Court. After that, there are both state and federal habeas corpus appeals. It’s normally another twelve years before that process concludes, at which point it isn’t uncommon for the federal court to send the case back to the state level, thereby repeating the process. As a result, the average time for a death penalty case to go from trial to execution is 25 years, and in 2010, the appeals alone cost taxpayers $58 million.
Backers of Prop 34 agree that this appeals process is dysfunctional. Along with the huge price tag, the lengthy process takes a toll on crime victims. As many death row cases are appealed multiple times, the victim’s family often has to return to court over and over again. “It’s emotionally draining, it’s financially draining, it’s psychologically draining,” said Deldelp Medina, the Northern California victims outreach coordinator for Death Penalty Focus, a group that supports Prop 34. “It’s not a process that helps anyone heal in any way, shape, or form.”
Opponents of the measure, however, believe that if the appeals process were fixed, the death penalty would work in California. Many point to Texas and Virginia as examples of how capital punishment can work. Both states run capital murder cases through the legal system incredibly quickly, resulting in a shorter duration between sentencing and execution. However, this shortened judicial process has led to numerous questionable executions. Also, in both Texas and Virginia, a death-penalty sentence continues to cost notably more than that of life without the possibility of parole.