The gurney in California's execution chamber at San Quentin State… (Los Angeles Times )
Los Angeles County residents look into their magic mirrors and see a humane and enlightened region with pragmatic criminal justice laws, unlike those backward, supposedly execution-crazy folks in places like Texas. The facts state otherwise. While the rest of California condemns felons to death at the same slowing pace as the rest of the nation, prosecutors in Los Angeles seek the death penalty aggressively. This single county sent more people to death row in 2009 than the entire state of Texas.
In November, Californians may consider a ballot measure that would eliminate the death penalty in favor of life-without-parole sentences, a proposal that has polled well but whose prospects remain uncertain in a state that has historically favored capital punishment. Even before then, though, voters in the state's most populous county will choose from among six candidates for district attorney, and the discussion and debate among those candidates, and between them and the voters, will directly affect how this region considers and uses the death penalty. Whether we eliminate capital punishment (and The Times believes strongly that we should) or keep it, county voters deserve to know where the candidates stand on the issue.
The question goes beyond merely who is for it and who is against it. Or even, for that matter, whether any given candidate uses the words that so many prosecutors do when describing who should be sent to death row: only "the worst of the worst."
Why should the worst of the worst be executed? Do candidates favor the death penalty only because it's a winning tough-on-crime election strategy, or do they truly believe that the penalty plays a constructive role in the justice system?
There are, after all, several different reasons for a criminal sentence:
• The protection of society from a dangerous felon who is prone to kill or injure again. Execution no doubt offers that direct protection, but so, barring a breakout from a maximum security prison, does life without parole.
• Retribution. Although Californians may differ among themselves about the appropriate priority in our corrections system of retribution, there can be no doubt that it has at least some role.
• Rehabilitation, when it is possible. Theologians may debate whether execution does any good for the soul, but on this Earth, execution does not rehabilitate.
• Deterrence, to provide a sufficient example of punishment to dissuade others from breaking the law. A reasonable person might stop to think about being put to death before killing, but then most reasonable people don't kill, and most killers are not reasonable people.
Will the next Los Angeles County district attorney keep up the current pace of death sentences? The candidates must tell voters — and explain their reasons.