Politics of death penalty head to November ballot

5:37 PM, Apr 23, 2012   |    comments
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San Quentin State Prison death chamber

Almost 34 years to the day California voters decided that the state's worst crimes should be punished by execution, the repeal of that same punishment will be back on the statewide ballot.

State elections officials confirmed late Monday that an initiative to abolish capital punishment in California has qualified for the November ballot, with supporters having gathered more than enough voter signatures to call the question.

The initiative would not only repeal the death penalty but would also convert the sentences of all 724 inmates currently on Death Row to life without the possibility of parole.  It would further commit $30 million a year for three years to local law enforcement efforts on unsolved murder and rape crimes.

California's last execution was in 2006, with subsequent executions blocked by a federal judge over the state's lethal injection procedure. But even before then, carrying out the formal sentence was the exception... not the rule.

"We've spent $4 billion executing 13 people" since 1978, says Don Heller, who wrote the original initiative.  "And that resonates with the public."

Heller's reference is to a 2011 study that concluded the costs of capital punishment -- mainly on the exhaustive legal appeals afforded inmates -- have been massive.

And no doubt the costs of a rarely used capital punishment system will be front and center in the campaign of the initiative's supporters -- if for no other reason than just a debate on the merits and morality of the death penalty may be tougher to win.  A Field Poll last fall (PDF) found 68% of those surveyed say they support keeping the death penalty on the books.

Opponents of the new initiative also believe this will largely be a fight about money, and dispute the savings to be realized by repealing capital punishment.

"This initiative," says Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, "would overturn over 700 cases where the trial costs have already been incurred, and a big chunk of the appeals costs have already been incurred. That money isn't coming back."

The death penalty repeal initiative is now the fifth measure placed on what's no doubt going to be a long and complicated November statewide ballot.  It's hard to say what kind of traditional, big bucks campaign will ensue.  But the issue is easily understood by voters, and often produces a gut reaction... and it's a debate that will no doubt get national attention as those tempers -- both pro and con -- begin to flare.


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