Faster Executions or None at All: California Voters May Get to Choose

Faster ExecutionsIf there’s one thing supporters and opponents of the death penalty can agree on, it’s this: The system is broken.

Since California reinstated capital punishment in 1977, 117 death row inmates have died. But only 15 of them have been executed. The vast majority have died of natural causes or suicide.

When he was chief justice of the California Supreme Court, Ronald George caused a stir when he said “the leading cause of death on death row in California is old age.” The system, he said, is dysfunctional  — and few would disagree.

Even before a federal judge blocked executions in 2006, the pace of implemented death sentences was slow. It wasn’t unusual for condemned inmates to spend two decades on death row, as their legal appeals slowly wound through the courts.

To death penalty supporters, that delay is a travesty of justice and disrespectful to crime victims and their families who, they say, deserve to see the ultimate sentence implemented.

But to death penalty opponents, the seemingly endless delays prove that capital punishment is unworkable and should be scrapped altogether.

San Quentin Prison, where more than 700 men on death row are housed. (Molly Samuel/KQED)

San Quentin Prison, where more than 700 men on death row are housed. (Molly Samuel/KQED)

Come November, California voters could have two completely different options for fixing the system. Two groups are preparing to collect signatures for ballot measures that would present stark choices.

One, the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016, would limit inmate appeals, which can drag on for decades, and expedite executions. It would also give the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation more latitude in housing condemned inmates and require them to work, with 70 percent of their wages going to crime victims.

The other proposal, which ballot measure proponent Mike Farrell calls “The Justice That Works Act of 2016,” would ban executions altogether and convert all existing death sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016 is current being reviewed by the Attorney General’s Office. A similar measure was proposed last year and endorsed by three former California governors. It never made it to the ballot.

This time around, he said, they’re hoping to contract with an experienced, Sacramento-based political strategy firm.

This week the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office released its fiscal review of that measure. While acknowledging the measure would affect various costs, “the magnitude of these effects would depend on how certain provisions in the measure are interpreted and implemented,” the LAO wrote.

In conclusion, it wrote:

  • Increased state costs that could be in the tens of millions of dollars annually for several years related to direct appeals and habeas corpus proceedings, with the fiscal impact on such costs being unknown in the longer run.
  • Potential state correctional savings that could be in the tens of millions of dollars annually.

Proponents of the measure to ban capital punishment must be more pleased with the LAO analysis of their measure. The LAO estimates a “net reduction in state and local government costs of potentially around $150 million annually within a few years due to the elimination of the death penalty.” You can be sure that will end up in a TV commercial for the measure.

Proponents of both measures have yet to collect a single signature. Assuming they get a green light from the attorney general and the secretary of state, they’ll have 180 days to collect the necessary signatures to put it before voters.

scott-shaferIf both succeed, they’ll likely join a November 2016  ballot with measures related to legalizing pot, raising the minimum wage and strengthening gun control. All that, plus a presidential election and the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.

In other words, a political junkie’s dream come true.

Scott Shafer
KQED News

About Scott Shafer

Scott Shafer serves as host of KQED Public Radio’s statewide news program The California Report. He’s also senior correspondent for KQED NEWSROOM, the weekly news and public affairs program on television, radio and digital. As a journalist, he has been honored by numerous institutions, including Radio Television Digital News Association, San Francisco Peninsula Press Club, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association, the Society for Professional Journalists and Public Radio News Directors Inc. Before arriving at KQED, Scott worked in state and local government. In his spare time, he enjoys swimming and playing water polo.