California's Proposition 34 calls for the end of the death penalty and replaces death sentences with a sentence of life without parole. The proposition would: (1) repeal the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole; (2) retroactively remove all current death penalty sentences and replace them with life without parole; (3) require all people convicted of murder to work while in prison and apply their wages to victim restitution and/or fines; and (4) create a $100,000,000 for law enforcement agencies specifically to solve murder and rape cases (Ballotpedia). Currently, there are 725 people on death row in California, though current challenges to California's lethal injection procedure means that none of them are currently facing execution. In fact, in 2006, a federal court judge halted all executions in California due to concerns over administration of the penalty in the state (Ballotpedia).
The death penalty has always been a controversial issue and there is both strong support and strong opposition for this measure. Those who support repealing the death penalty make several compelling arguments. They argue that the death penalty is unduly expensive and that money spent in other places would do more to decrease crime rates than the death penalty currently does. They argue that the finality of death means that the possibility of a mistake is greatly enhanced, and sight the fact that several people have been found actually innocent after being convicted of murder in California. They argue that life sentences will create the same security as the death penalty by removing offenders from the population. Finally, they argue that the death penalty is intrinsically morally wrong (Ballotpedia).
As strong as support for the repeal of the death penalty is, there is still a significant amount of opposition to the proposition. The opponents believe that the death penalty is the only way to provide justice to the families of murder victims. They suggest that since the death penalty has already previously been approved by California voters, that the attempt to repeal it is insulting to victims. They are particularly offended by the implication that repealing the death penalty will save money and suggest that expediting the execution process would be a better way to save money. Furthermore, they suggest that, while the death penalty may be morally difficult, it provides safeguards that victims and their family members did not receive (Ballotpedia). Finally, they suggest that the state simply cannot afford the $100 million to fund rape and murder investigations that this proposition would require (California Secretary of State).
One of the main reasons that opponents of the death penalty say that Californians should vote no on Prop 34 is the heinousness of the crimes committed by the murders. For example, the special interest group Californians for Justice and Public Safety highlights the worst-of-the-worst offenders on death row, highlighting their crimes. On October 25, 2012, the inmate highlighted was Spencer Rawlin Brasure, who was convicted of a torture murder, in which he and an accomplice, "kidnapped 20-year-old Anthony Guest, tied him up, burned him with a propane torch, stapled wood to his head, forced him to eat broken glass, and shocked him repeatedly with a cattle prod before setting him on fire and leaving him to die" (Californians for Justice and Public Safety). It took Guest several hours to die. Furthermore, Brasure attempted to evade conviction by having witnesses for his original trial killed. Clearly, Brasure committed a horrible and violent crime, and, if any crime were to be deserving of the death penalty, the murder of Guest seems to qualify as such a crime. However, the horrible reality of that murder does not change the problems with California's death penalty. The reality is that Brasure cannot be executed at this point in time because California's lethal injection system has been found unconstitutional and California does not have a substitute system available. Highlighting criminals like Brasure is an emotional appeal to voters, but the heinousness of his crimes does nothing to fix the fact that California's death penalty is broken.
The opponents of Prop 34 even go so far as to acknowledge that California's death penalty is broken. They suggest that the solution to that problem is to repair the death penalty, not repeal it. The problem with that suggestion is that a repair does not seem feasible. Currently, California's death penalty does not result in executions, and it has not for a significant period of time. In fact, the extra protections that are constitutionally required in all death penalty cases, requirements that the State of California is powerless to change, mean that final resolution of a death penalty case will always take an inordinate period of time. As a result, "death row inmates are more likely to die of old age or infirmity than to be executed" (Yes on 34). In contrast, a non-death-eligible defendant's criminal trial is usually concluded within weeks and those defendants only get one tax-payer funded appeal. This means that victims' families get a final decision much more quickly and results in significant tax savings for taxpayers.
Opponents to Prop 34 suggest that the figures about the exorbitant costs of the death penalty are greatly exaggerated. They believe that if the state would simply expedite executions, then the costs of the death penalty would not be so high. However, that position ignores the fact that the state has no real control over the federally mandated constitutional protections that any state instituting the death penalty have to institute in order to ensure that their death penalty meets constitutional standards. In California, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, the state spent more than $4 billon on capital punishment. There were only 13 executions in that time period, bringing the cost of each execution to approximately $308 million a piece (Jones and Eder).
Opponents of the proposition suggest that those numbers are inflated. For example, they suggest that court-costs could be reduced by narrowing the appeals process. They also suggest that housing costs are not as high as stated, but death-row inmates are housed singly rather than doubly, a consideration for inmate and staff safety, which makes it more expensive to house them. The reality is that their cries that costs could be eliminated are emotional appeals not based in reality. Even with the enormous expenditures, California does not have an execution system that will pass current constitutional muster. Moreover, with evolving community standards, one can expect that it will only become more financially burdensome for a state to institute the death penalty. Moreover, even if the figures were grossly exaggerated so that the total cost per execution were only a tenth of the stated cost, that would still be over $30 million per execution, and, in a cash-starved state, that expense seems difficult to justify.
In fact, the opponents of the bill site the earmarked $100 million for unsolved rape and murder case investigations a poor use of money because of California's financial status. However, eliminating a single execution would more than fund that cost. Moreover, one of the emotional reasons for pushing the death penalty is the idea of enhanced public safety, though there has been no positive correlation between the death penalty and decreased violent crime rates. On the contrary, devoting resources to identifying and apprehending violent criminals who remain at large at least has the possibility of meaningfully impacting violent crime rates in the community.
Viscerally, I would have initially wanted to vote "no" to Prop 34. Having the death penalty for killers, especially particularly violent ones, seems to be just and to give victims what they deserve. However, after researching Prop 34 and learning how irrevocably broken the death penalty is, particularly in the state of California, it seems irresponsible to…