This November, Proposition 34 — the SAFE California Act initiative — will ask California voters to stop funding the state’s broken death penalty system and try another approach to improving public safety.
Whether you are for or against the death penalty, Prop. 34 is an excellent example of how direct democracy is supposed to work. For decades, the legislature has failed to act to make needed reforms to California’s death penalty system. This has resulted in the wasteful spending of billions of dollars on a system that has carried out a grand total of 13 executions. Taxpayers have been forced — through the legislature’s inaction — to continue funding this wholly ineffective system. Until now.
Finally, a proponent has come forward with a direct initiative that gives voters a chance to reform the law. Former San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford, who has had a long and successful career within the California Department of Corrections and who oversaw four executions, says that the system is not working. Gathering 800,000 signatures to place Prop. 34 on the ballot, Woodford is taking the case directly to the voters of California and asking them to take action to eliminate the death penalty. This is direct democracy at its best.
It is no longer disputed that the annual cost of implementing California’s death penalty is at least $100 million more than what we would spend if the state’s most severe penalty were life in prison without the possibility of parole. The independent Legislative Analyst’s Office says as much in its fiscal impact statement on the ballot summary for Prop. 34. We know how much the system is costing taxpayers because technology now permits us to collect and analyze criminal justice cost data. The data also permit us to propose evidence-based reforms that are strategically tailored to remedy specific problems and lead to specific outcomes. Prop. 34 is just such a data-driven, evidence-based, proposed reform. For example, the data shows that 46 percent of homicide cases in California are never closed. That means that every year roughly 1,000 murderers in California escape justice. Similarly, 56 percent of reported rapes go unsolved annually. Instead of wasting millions of dollars on a broken system, Prop. 34 would direct taxpayer money to solving more murders and reported rape cases.
There is no credible evidence that having the death penalty reduces violent crime. None. There is evidence, however, that California now ranks second in the nation (tied with Texas) as the state with the most wrongful convictions. Our system makes grave mistakes — and some cannot be undone. The evidence also shows that nearly 1,000 death sentences that have been handed down in California since 1978, but the state has carried out only 13 executions. During that time, over 80 inmates have died on death row of other causes before being executed by the state.
By 2050, if nothing changes in California’s capital conviction and execution rates, the state will spend an additional $5 billion to $7 billion for a system that will produce only another 14 executions, while 500 more inmates will die of old age and other causes on death row before they are executed. These are the facts. And these facts have been presented to the state legislature time and again. The California legislature has refused to act. It is now up to the voters.
The 1978 Briggs Initiative, another direct voter initiative which led to the enactment of the state’s current scheme, promised to “give every Californian the protection of the nation’s toughest, most effective death penalty law.” A system that has cost taxpayers $4 billion and executed no more than 13 people is neither “tough” nor “effective.” Technology in the 21st century is not what it was in 1978. We now have analytical tools that allow us to approach criminal justice policy reforms with more precision and sophistication. It is now possible to examine the costs and benefits of various criminal justice programs, including the administration of the death penalty, and determine whether our programs are working, and whether we are making efficient use of our scarce public resources. After three decades of wasteful spending on a broken system, California voters — now equipped with actual evidence of how costly and ineffective the state’s death penalty system has become — will have an opportunity to weigh in at the ballot box and decide whether continuing the current broken system makes sense, or whether California can do better. Regardless of the outcome, that is direct democracy at its best.
Paula M. Mitchell is an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School Los Angeles, where she teaches habeas corpus and civil rights litigation. She co-wrote with Senior Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcón “Costs of Capital Punishment in California” (2012) and “Executing the Will of the Voters?” (2011).