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Cost concerns lead California’s death penalty repeal debate

By Maggie Clark, –

WASHINGTON — For Ron Briggs, California’s ballot initiative to repeal the death penalty isn’t just a policy change, but a chance to right the “ineffective legal beast created by California’s death penalty laws,” which he and his father, then a state senator, helped put in place nearly 40 years ago.

“We thought our 1978 initiative created a system to support victims’ families,” wrote Briggs in a Los Angeles Times commentary earlier this year. “It didn’t. The only people benefiting today are the lawyers who handle expensive appeals and the criminals who are able to keep their cases alive interminably.”

Briggs, a self-described conservative who now serves on the Board of Supervisors for El Dorado County and has seen firsthand the “fiscally ruinous effects” of his initiative, joins a chorus of former death penalty supporters who now say that California’s system is unfixable and should be abolished. In November, California voters will decide whether to approve a constitutional amendment to repeal the state’s death penalty and commute the sentences of current death row inmates to life without the possibility of parole.

Advocates for repeal hope that voters will be persuaded not only by the moral reasons to oppose the death penalty, but also the fiscal ones.

“Voters are shocked when they learn that we are on track to spend $1 billion in five years on a broken death penalty,” said Miriam Gerace, communications director for the SAFE California campaign to repeal the death penalty, in an email to Stateline. “California is broke and voters are ready to have an informed conversation about how we can cut ineffective programs that cost too much and serve no useful purpose.”

A July analysis from the state’s Legislative Analysts’ Office found that repealing the death penalty would save the state and counties up to $130 million annually. California has spent about $4 billion on the death penalty system since Briggs’ family brought back California’s death penalty in 1978, according to an analysis from 9th Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon and Professor Paula Mitchell. And in that time, only 13 people have actually been executed.

But proponents of the state’s death penalty argue that it’s the death penalty opponents that make the system so expensive in the first place, by filing endless appeals and prolonging what they believe should be a shorter process. Those appeals keep death row inmates alive and consuming state resources, and also force families to go through seemingly endless trials for their family members’ killer.

“Proponents’ born-again fiscal conservatism is hypocritical because they are the ones who have for decades disrupted the system by filing endless legal appeals,” wrote Stephen Wagstaffe, the San Mateo County district attorney, and Marc Klaas, whose daughter was murdered by Richard Allen Davis who now sits on California’s death row, in a San Francisco Chronicle commentary editorial last month.

The anti-repeal advocates recommend the “mend it, don’t end it” approach recently taken in South Dakota, where the legislature limited death row inmates to one post-conviction appeal, filed within two years of their initial sentencing. They also recommend that appeals courts be allowed to hear death penalty appeals, which currently can be heard only by the state Supreme Court. Those fixes would have to be made by legislation or through later ballot initiatives.

The public is nearly as divided on the death penalty as the two opposing campaigns, according to recent polling. The two sides were in a virtual tie — 45.5 percent supported repeal, 46.7 percent opposed — on July 19, one day before the Aurora, Co. shootings. But two weeks after the shooting, the same poll found that only 35 percent of voters favored repeal, while 55 percent supported keeping the death penalty.

Historically, California voters have largely backed the idea of the death penalty, although a 2011 Field poll found that a majority of voters support life imprisonment over capital punishment for first-degree murderers, by a 48 percent to 40 percent margin.

California’s death penalty system is the nation’s largest, with 729 condemned inmates on death row as of August, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. But it’s not the only state to question the death penalty in the last few years. Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois and New Mexico have repealed their death penalties in recent years and even in states with the death penalty, fewer death sentences are being handed down.

“This isn’t an out-of-the-blue ballot initiative,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told Stateline. “It’s a test of which direction California wants to go.”

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