Saturday, July 9, 2011

Bye Bye California Death Penalty?

California voters may soon be considering the abolition of the death penalty (again). A Field Poll of California voters a year ago showed Californians still support the penalty by 70%. More on that later. For now, there are 714 inmates on California's death row. The bill would also commute those sentences to life without parole.

In 1978, after California had reinstated the death penalty following a United States Supreme Court decision, the voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure expanding the number of crimes which could result in the ultimate punishment. The measure has been upheld at every appellate level. After conducting lengthy hearings in the Assembly Public Safety Committee, the members voted the new abolition bill out favorably on a 5-2 party line vote, with Democrats in the majority. The Assembly can choose to conduct further hearings, or simply pass the bill on to the State Senate on a simple majority vote.

The State Senate is even more overwhelmingly liberal and anti-death penalty than the Assembly. But as I've mentioned before, these people are not the bravest critters on earth, so rather than pass the measure in the two houses by supermajorities (required for overturning a prior ballot measure), the legislature would merely place the measure on the November ballot for the people to sort out. A simple majority of the people can pass the measure, unlike the requirement in the legislature. As they so often do, the Democrats cloak their reasoning for sending it to the people in terms of "the will of the people," but in reality they simply fear backlash.

To add to the uniquely California mix, Governor Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown is a staunch opponent of the death penalty. That would lead to the conclusion that he will sign the bill without hesitation. Except for one thing. The Corrections Officers Association (union) and the police unions vehemently oppose the measure, and they are major contributors to his campaigns. President of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, Ron Cuttingham, said "the measure will put a target on the back of my members and every peace officer in California because criminals know they will only face 'three hots and a cot' for killing an officer."

The proponents of the measure took into account an in-depth study published by the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review which concluded that over $4 billion in state and federal funds have been spent to administer the death penalty since its reinstatement, and that in 2009 alone, it cost taxpayers $184 million more to have the death penalty than not to have it. Several other witnesses cited similar figures, and the Democrats on the committee stated that they relied heavily on that information for their decision. Oh, now they discover fiscal responsibility, but only when it supports one of their pet causes.

Several opponents of the bill testified that the study's figures were probably pretty close to being right, but nevertheless this was the wrong place to cut costs. Their position is that cost should be the least of considerations when punishing the criminals who commit unspeakable crimes. Many testified that the cost problems related to the insane appellate processes that keep clearly guilty convicted murderers (often convicted of multiple murders) on death row for decades rather than to the costs of the penalty itself. Since 1978, the state has only executed 13 of the convicts, and 78 have died of natural causes or prison violence. That leaves over 600 convicted killers biding their time on the taxpayers' money. And that doesn't even include the lawyers fees run up on appeals, most of which are processed by state-employed public defenders.

In another "only in California" development, two very influential witnesses stood for repeal of the death penalty. Both had previously supported it, and not in a small way. Don Heller spoke in favor of the abolition, and he wrote the 1978 ballot measure that reinstated the death penalty and added several "special circumstances" to the previous list of capital crimes.

Jeanne Woodford, who testified in favor of the penalty on several prior occasions, now opposes the penalty. She is the former warden of San Quentin, where death row resides, and former Director of the Department of Corrections. She said "it is wasteful and counterproductive to public safety to spend our precious resources pretending that we have a death penalty when we know the sentence will not be carried out 99% of the time."

I understand the arguments, but I find it hard to agree with them. I believe in the death penalty. I also question how one places an "optimum cost-benefit" analysis on crimes that strike so deeply into the fabric of society. The appellate process could be cut drastically, and the United States Supreme Court has already exhibited a willingness to limit the number of appeals available as well as a willingness to require that all issues on appeal be exhausted in the state court or a federal court rather than the current method of exhausting state appeals first, then starting over at the federal level.

The cost of trials might be reduced somewhat by no longer having a separate penalty phase for the death penalty, but the savings would be minimal. The cost of incarceration would likewise not be changed to any great degree just because the criminals will now live out their miserable lives in the general population or administrative segregation rather than on death row. I understand practical considerations, but I don't understand fiscal responsibility in relation to horrendous crimes in a state which passes nearly unrestricted green initiatives, pumps money into the public sector to build electric cars and high-speed trains, and destroys nearly the entire agricultural portion of the state economy over a lousy fish.

And now, for that promised "more on that later." A poll on the proposed bill and referendum taken by the San Francisco Chronicle in the Bay Area produced the following results: 48% said "no, it's time to actually use the death penalty." 28% said "yes, it's expensive and rarely-enforced." And a predictable 24% said "civilized places don't have a death penalty." Now I think it's a fair assumption that at least 20% of those who support abolition because it's expensive and rarely-enforced would be in the "keep it" column if those costs were reduced and the penalty enforced expeditiously. Add that 20% to the total, and you now have 53.6% favoring retaining the death penalty in the most liberal geographical area of the state.


Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk - like you, I am a proponent of the death penalty, although I admit it is not cut and dried in my mind and that there are some valid arguments against. In the end, I think I just feel there are some things human beings do to each other that cry out for "an eye for an eye" justice. Likewise, I think from a purely economic standpoint, it is better to be done than be forced to keep feeding and clothing them in an overcrowded prison system.

Still, if the elected officials repeal it, then the recourse of the people is to vote them out of office and vote in those who would reinstate it. If the majority of people have fried their brains over the years, and become addicted to "communalism" Kumbayah bullshit philosophy and suck the life blood out of capitalism in the golden state, what is one to do? I guess that would mean it just wasn't important enough to hold the elected official's feet to the fire. The poll you cite is incredibly instructive as an example of the manipulative nature of polls, btw.

Joel Farnham said...


This makes it easier for people to justify taking the law into their own hands and delivering vigilante retribution.

The added costs are just the frivolous appeals and delays. I wish they would still have public executions. Maybe have it on pay-per-view.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: As the Sam Waterston character in Law and Order said in the episode where he was prosecuting the first new death penalty case after reinstatement in New York, "one can be in favor of the death penalty without being sanguine about it." I believe in the death penalty without taking any joy in it. Some crimes strike so deeply at the heart of civilized society that the removal of the perpetrator from this life is the only remedy which will put things aright. I would add more than murder with special circumstances to the list, but that has been debated for decades, and my view will never prevail.

I don't think it will be necessary for the people to vote the California legislators out. They'll never get 2/3 majorities in both houses, so they have to submit the bill to the people. I'm surmising that the 70% opposition figure is probably pretty close to being right. But even in a "liberal year," that would still mean the people would vote the repeal down. Some hinky things have happened in California because of our initiative and referendum process, bot more often it keeps the legislators in their place.

Unknown said...

Joel: Trial and state-instituted death penalties were indeed put in place partially to to fend off the law of vendetta and active vigilantism. Its abolition could contribute to an increase in formerly capital crimes, particularly murders of police officers. But that is very hard to prove, and studies have supported both sides of the argument.

I don't argue the death penalty is a general deterrent. It probably is, but nobody has been able to prove that with consistent data and hard proof. What it does do, without any need for studies or argument, is deter the person executed. That is the assurance that society needs to salve the harm done by the perpetrators of particularly heinous crimes. It's the reason I would support the death penalty for child-rapists.

AndrewPrice said...

I can't say that I'm surprised by this. When you vote in liberals by overwhelming numbers, you get the full plate of liberal ideas. That means high taxes, heavy regulation, speech codes and a love affair with violent criminals (though liberals love to be obscenely hard on petty "law" breakers like people who disobey speech codes). I'm frankly surprised Gov. Moonbeam hasn't just pardoned everyone in prison.

Unknown said...

Andrew: So true. And there's another quirk in California law, brought to us courtesy of the "progressive" initiative/referendum process. If the referendum to abolish the death penalty should pass (unlikely, even liberals don't like mass murderers and cop-killers), existing death penalties would be converted to life without parole, as I mentioned in the article.

BUT, there really is no such thing as life without parole here, since the state constitutional plenary power of the governor to commute or pardon convicted criminals remains in place. In order to assure that those criminals actually remain in prison for the rest of their unnatural lives, there would have to be yet another initiative or referendum passing a state constitutional amendment removing the governor's power of commutation and pardon in the matter of life without parole sentences.

That provision cannot be included in the abolition referendum because the state constitution prohibits initiatives and referenda from covering more than one subject. Abolition and the powers of the governor are two distinctly subjects. And just to muddy the waters even farther, abolition is essentially a mere law, requiring only a simple majority. But altering the powers of the governor is a constitutional amendment, requiring not a mere majority, but a 2/3 majority. Ain't direct democracy fun?

StanH said...

Not to state the obvious, but California is a weird place. CA continually votes in sensible ideas only to be thrown out by a judge. The state through the Field Poll wants to keep the ultimate punishment, Sacramento says no. It’s like on the day of the birth of California as a state it was accidentally dropped on it’s head?

Unknown said...

Stan: A lot more good initiatives and referenda have been defeated by overreaching activist judges in the past couple decades than by the legislature. But they've done their fair share of it as well.

This one's going to be a toughie for the bleeding-hearts. They don't have the votes in the Assembly and Senate to outright overturn the 1978 initiative, so they play "democrats" because they do have enough votes to pass it on to the people as a referendum. I think that 70% will probably drop to 60%-65%, but the repeal of the death penalty will still lose at the ballot box by a hefty margin.

And for the first time in many years, I am nearly absolutely certain that the people's will on this issue will not get undone by the courts. The lefty judges at the state and federal level might try to undo the people's vote, but there are now so many cases which support it, and so many clear guidelines in cases directly from the US Supreme Court upholding far more sketchy state death penalty statutes, that it's extremely unlikely that the Supreme Court will allow a goofball court like the Ninth Circuit to thwart the will of the people of the State of California.

Unknown said...

Stan: And BTW, at the risk of being very politically-incorrect, when I was growing up, the common saying among residents of the other states about California was that "the US was temporarily tilted on its side, and all the fruits and nuts fell into California." Disclaimer: I didn't say that--they said that.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Good grief! only 13 executed since 1978?
What's a major malfunction? Texas doesn't have this problem.

We have the same problem in Washington (and Oregon). There is a death penalty in both those states too, but it's rarely implemented.

Why the disparity between CA, WA, OR and Texas?
Why isn't executions in TX delayedf for (pick any number of idiotic reasons; the drugs used are considered "cruel and unusual punishment," the administraters of the drug quit, there ain't "enough" of the drugs, etc., etc..

Apparently, all that BS doesn't fly in TX, FL, OK, and other states that actually implement the death penalty.

How can we get some Texas style efficiency here in the la la land of the west?

And I agree wholeheartedly, LawHawk, child rapists should get the death penalty (Texas style)!

Excellent post, LawHawk!

Unknown said...

USSBen: The California courts are a mess (my home county is a rare exception, where "ready" means "ready," not "ready in a few months or years." Any crazy theory can get a judge in LA or SF to set the clock back for the convicts by another two or three years. Lawyers are routinely granted lengthy continuances for no good legal cause. I could write a column just on the horrendous failings of the California courts, but I'd only get angry and everyone who reads it would get bored.

The left uses the "justice delayed is justice denied" argument, but the ACLU, the Innocence Project, NAACP, and various other organizations are the ones delaying it. And the justice denied is the justice the people deserve when a fair and impartial decision has been rendered, only to be sidetracked for decades by what I consider frivolous appeals and wasteful retrials.

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