I must admit, when I first learned that death penalty repeal made it onto the California ballot I was ecstatic. Abolishing the state-sanctioned murder that is capital punishment has long been a goal of mine, and Proposition 34
-- the Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement California Act (SAFE) seemed to be a long overdue invitation for Californians to do the right thing and bring our state in line with every other nation in the Western world in rejecting the cruel and unusual institution of capital punishment.
But Prop 34, like so many other California ballot measures over the years, is not what it seems. For starters, it replaces the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. On the surface, this may seem like an improvement. But consider this: many death row inmates surveyed about the measure emphatically say they are against it. Why on Earth would prisoners be opposed to an initiative that, if passed, would literally save their lives?
Here's where the devil's in the details. Prop 34 would not only release California's 725 condemned inmates into general prison populations, where they would face a much more violent existence than in the relatively sheltered confines of death row, but it would also mean that the prisoners would lose their right to state-appointed lawyers who investigate and file habeas corpus
petitions on their behalf. Under the current system, evidence not admitted during prisoners' trials is considered during the appeals process as well as in federal court after inmates exhaust their state appeals. If Prop 34 passes, this will no longer be the case, save for under certain very rare circumstances. Innocent men and women sentenced to life behind bars with no chance of parole would have a much harder time proving their innocence.
Executions are extremely rare occurrences in California. It's been six years since anyone's been put to death in the state, and since 1978 only 13 people have been executed. Many death row inmates know they stand a much better chance of dying of old age in prison than of being executed. Innocent inmates wrongfully imprisoned-- and before you roll your eyes, consider the fact that there have been 300 post-conviction DNA exonerations
in the United States since 1989-- would also lose hope that they might one day be released.
"The cruelest punishment one can inflict is to rob a human being of hope," death row defense attorney David R. Dow, who is also a law professor at the University of Houston, writes
in The Nation
. Rejecting the death penalty for life without the possibility of parole, Dow writes, replaces one type of death penalty "with a different kind of death sentence."
"Sending a prisoner to die behind bars with no hope of release is a sentence that denies the possibility of redemption every bit as much as strapping a murderer to the gurney and filling him with poison," Dow adds, pointing to the fact that not only is the United States the only Western nation that still executes prisoners, it is also the only one that still sentences prisoners to life without parole. "Even China and Pakistan, hardly exemplars of progressive criminal justice policy, allow prisoners serving life sentences to come up for parole after 25 years," Dow writes.
I wrote that many California death row inmates oppose Prop 34, which would seem to be very much against their best interests. But I'm not making this up-- the Chicago-based Campaign to End the Death Penalty
, which also opposes Prop 34, queried more than 200 California death row prisoners about the measure. Fifty replied. Of those, 47 were against it. Surprisingly, some opposed it for reasons that had little to do with their own life or death.
"Make no mistake about it; the SAFE California Act is a kickback scheme and a means of aiding law enforcement and prosecutors in continuing to propagate the prison-industrial complex
," Tim Young, a death row inmate at San Quentin penitentiary wrote in an op-ed
in the San Fransisco Bay View.
Young points to a provision of the initiative that mandates $100 million be transferred to law enforcement agencies over the next three years as particularly troublesome.
"You can expect to see an increase of cops, criminalization and incarceration," Young writes. "This will lead to jail and prison expansion... sadly, education, health care and social programs will once again end up at the bottom of the heap. I ask, how many more Rodney King
, Oscar Grant
and Scott Olsen
types of incidents have to take place before taxpayers finally decide to stop funding a police state?"
"If the SAFE California Act passes, it will not only give crooked cops and dirty prosecutors a blank check, it will also solidify California as a penitentiary/slave state," Young adds. "I'm no fan of capital punishment," the condemned man writes, "but I'd rather be resigned to my fate than to acquiesce to a ballot initiative that would place future generations in harm's way."
If those whose very lives are at stake would rather maintain the system that may just kill them one day than replace it with something that would save their lives but prolong their misery, who am I to ignore their opinions? Granted, many death row inmates would no doubt welcome the respite that abolition would confer, and there would be great pride in the fact that California would be joining the civilized world in rejecting the barbarism of capital punishment. But that pride would be borne of ignorance for the uninformed and, worse, it would be an false, empty pride for those of us who are aware of the staunch opposition of many death row prisoners and anti-death penalty activists to the measure.
It is with a heavy heart and great disappointment that I will cast a "no" vote on Proposition 34.