In November, California voters will decide the fate of Proposition 34, a ballot measure that would overturn the death penalty for people found guilty of murder and replace it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
Proponents of the ballot measure say that passage would save the state and counties the expense of lengthy death penalty proceedings. They estimate the state would save $100 million annually for the first few years, followed by a $130 million increase thereafter. Prop. 34’s passage would also create the SAFE California Fund, an initiative that would provide resources for sheriffs and police departments as well as district attorney offices statewide.
“The campaign isn’t about a moral opinion of the death penalty,” says Daisy Vieyra, communications assistant for Yes on Proposition 34. “It’s about what is actually happening in the state of California…. Right now, with our state’s budget cuts, it doesn’t really seem feasible to fix or have [the death penalty].”
If the death penalty is abolished, the statewide prison population would likely increase. However, given the elongated time that many prisoners spend on death row, proponents believe the difference would be minimal and that it would be cheaper to serve a life sentence without parole. Since 1978, the state has spent $4 billion on the death penalty.
According to language in the law, Prop. 34 will “end a costly and ineffective practice, free up law enforcement resources to increase the rate at which homicide and rape cases are solved, and achieve fairness, equality and uniformity in sentencing.”
Opponents claim that the proposition’s numbers are misleading. Its passage, they say, would cost taxpayers $100 million over the next four years, and millions more down the road. Additionally, they maintain that the proposition would cost taxpayers at least $50,000 annually per convicted killer for such services as lifetime health care and housing.
According to Californians for Justice and Public Safety, the proposition, if passed, “would let serial killers, cop killers, child killers, and those who kill the elderly, escape justice. Proponents don’t acknowledge that when California’s death penalty was eliminated before, condemned criminals were released only to rape and kill again.”
Prop. 34 would also require that all prisoners serving a life sentence for murder be made to work, and that debts to crime victims be deducted from their pay. This is currently the practice in the state, but Prop. 34 would make it a requirement.
Opponents of the measure also say that the proposition unfairly punishes victims’ families, who have already suffered deeply from their loss. According to the voter information guide, capital murder victims include 225 children, 43 police officers, 235 individuals who were raped and murdered, and 90 who were tortured and murdered.
The Peace Officers Research Association of California, a statewide coalition formed to uphold the death penalty, claims that the proposition’s passage “would embolden the most vicious criminals and endanger law-abiding citizens as well as sworn peace officers.”
Those against the proposition argue that victims and their families deserve retribution. But supporters of Prop. 34 maintain that innocent people are frequently executed in the pursuit of justice.
“More than 100 innocent people have been sentenced to death in the U.S., and some have been executed,” proponents claim in the information guide. “We’ll never execute an innocent person with 34.”
Below is a timeline of the death penalty in California.
Mug shots courtesy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation