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The wrong reasons to end the death penalty

October 02, 2012|By Dan Turner
  • In "For Whom the Bell Tolls," a sculpture by artists Mike Seifert and William Franco, a scroll contains the names of executed inmates.
In "For Whom the Bell Tolls," a sculpture by artists Mike Seifert… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

It would be more pleasant to live in a democracy if voters didn't so often behave like mindless herd-beasts. Case in point: Californians' attitudes toward Proposition 34.

This measure would end the death penalty in the Golden State, and there are lots of very good reasons to support it, the primary one being that capital punishment is a primitive and irreversible sanction that you can't take back if evidence turns up later that the guy you executed wasn't guilty. Innocent people, in fact, are convicted of capital murder all the time; the most recent exonoree was Damon Thibodeaux of Louisiana, who spent 15 years on death row until DNA evidence showed his innocence; he was released Monday.

Absurdly, opponents of Proposition 34 claim that it isn't the death penalty itself that's the problem in California but the lengthy legal appeals that have prevented the state from executing anyone since 2006. Yet if not for such lengthy appeals, Thibodeaux probably would have been executed by now. He is the 18th death row inmate to be exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project.

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There are plenty of other good reasons to back the measure: Juries are more likely to award the death penalty if murder victims happen to have been white; capital punishment costs the state tens and possibly hundreds of millions of dollars a year, even though executions have stalled; a sentence of life without the possibility of parole keeps the worst killers behind bars until they die, meaning it protects society just as well as the death penalty. But none of these things appear to be terribly persuasive to California voters.

A recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that Proposition 34 was losing 38% to 51%, but the gap narrows to statistical insignificance when voters are informed of two lesser-known aspects of the initiative: It would set aside $100 million to help police solve major crimes faster, and it would force former death row inmates to work and, if they owe restitution money to victims' families, to pay it. Both of these provisions were inserted into the initiative not because they will actually accomplish anything or because they represent good policy but because they pander to voters. And guess what? Voters like that, just as sheep respond to the lure of an untouched green meadow.

Under Proposition 34, $10 million would be transferred this year from the state general fund to local law enforcement agencies, with the direction that they spend it speeding the resolution of rape and murder cases, along with another $30 million annually over the course of three years. Although proponents argue that the money would be more than made up by savings from eliminating the death penalty, this is an unfunded mandate at a time when state government is teetering. It's also ballot-box budgeting: Putting money in untouchable silos that make it harder for lawmakers to balance budgets or set priorities. And as state government faces crushing needs -- schools are in dire shape, assistance programs are vanishing, prisons are underfunded -- police agencies are for the most part doing fine financially and don't really need the money.

Meanwhile, the provision on inmate labor is next to meaningless. California prisoners are already required to work, and if they owe restitution, they're required to pay it. That applies to death row inmates too, yet that mandate is nearly always waived by prison officials because capital inmates are a big security risk and must be constantly watched by guards. If Proposition 34 passes, these inmates will go into the general prison population, and that might make it more likely that they'll be asked to fulfill their work duties, although not necessarily. This is, again, some nice untrammeled grass for Mr. and Mrs. Woolhead.

Blaze your own trail, proud sheep-dog voter: Vote yes on Proposition 34 because it's the right thing to do, not because the ruminants are going with their multiple guts.

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