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Reason Foundation

California Voters' Guide 2012: Proposition 34

Among a daunting package of ballot questions, here is the free minds and free markets perspective on proposition 34.

Adrian Moore
October 16, 2012

Proposition 34: Replace Death Penalty with Life in Prison

Proposition 34 will eliminate the death penalty in California and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole.  It will apply retroactively to persons already sentenced to death.  It also requires persons found guilty of murder to work while in prison, with their wages to be applied to any victim restitution fines or orders against them. It will create a $100 million fund to be distributed to law enforcement agencies to help solve more homicide and rape cases.

Fiscal Impact

The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that the state and counties will save around $100 million a year on murder trials, death penalty appeals, and prison costs in the first few years, growing to about $130 million annually thereafter. The LAO says this estimate could be higher or lower by tens of millions of dollars, largely depending on how the measure is implemented.  There is also a one-time state cost totaling $100 million for grants to local law enforcement agencies to be paid over the next four years.

Arguments for Proposition 34

Proponents of Prop. 34 argue that most people think the death penalty is cheaper than life without parole, but that this is just not true.  They point out that the Legislative Analyst's official report on Prop. 34 says California taxpayers will save $130 million each year without releasing a single prisoner.  They argue that death row inmates live in special housing (individual cells), and have special lawyers, exercise and visitor privileges and taxpayer-funded appeals that last for decades, all of which costs a lot more than an inmate serving a life sentence.

We pay lip service to restitution in California, supporters say, and Prop. 34 holds convicted killers accountable to pay for their crimes by working for wages that go to restitution and a victim’s compensation fund.

At the same time, supporters argue that a shocking 46 percent of murders and 56 percent of reported rapes go unsolved in California each year. Why waste $130 million dollars every year on the death penalty instead of using that money to bring more killers and rapists to justice and to protect our families.  They argue that Prop. 34 sets aside $100 million to solve more murder and rape cases.

A total of 140 innocent people have been exonerated after being wrongly sentenced to death in this country. Some innocent people have actually been executed. Replacing the death penalty with life in prison ensures we don't risk executing someone who is innocent.

Finally, supporters argue that justice requires accountability to survivors of murder victims. But the death penalty traps survivors in decades of mandatory appeals, forcing them to relive the trauma over and over. Life sentences without parole will usually bring this to an end once there is a conviction.

Supporters of Proposition 34

Website: http://www.safecalifornia.org/

Largest Donors to Yes Campaign as of October 1, 2012

Arguments Against Proposition 34

Opponents of Prop. 34 argue that the death penalty is given to less than 2 percent of murderers whose crimes are so shocking that juries of law-abiding citizens unanimously delivered the sentence.  Hence, they say, the death penalty is reserved for only the worst of the worst criminals in our state—those who have killed cops, or raped and tortured children—and is an option that should be reserved for our communities to decide upon.

Opponents also argue that not imposing the death penalty on serial killers, cop killers, child killers, and those who kill the elderly is letting them escape justice.  And they argue that when California’s death penalty was eliminated in the 1970s condemned criminals were released only to rape and kill again.

Finally, opponents of Prop. 34 say that the costs of the death penalty used by supporters are misleading and inflated. With life in prison there would still be lengthy appeals, expensive prison costs, and lifetime medical care for killers.

Opponents of Proposition 34

Website: http://voteno34.org/

Largest Donors to No Campaign as of October 1, 2012

Discussion of Proposition 34

It is hard to argue that the California death penalty works.  Very few people are sentenced to death in California, and those who are spend an average of 20 years on death row. In the last two decades, on average one person has been executed in California every 1.5 years. And the costs of holding death row inmates in special conditions all those years, with continuous legal counsel and so on, is outrageous.

Worse, we know that on occasion an innocent person is convicted and given a death sentence.  New technologies have allowed better analysis of evidence that has proved over a hundred people on death row nationwide to be innocent of the crimes for which they were to be executed.  The justice system is not perfect, no system can be.  With a life sentence, there is at least a chance that a mistake can eventually be discovered and rectified. With the death sentence, once executed, the innocent are forever dead.  If the justice system is in fact about justice and not vengeance, there can be no greater injustice than the state killing an innocent person. It is not reasonable to argue that life in prison without parole is not justice.

The opponents of Prop. 34 let their emotions get the better of them in this debate. They keep arguing that the last time California didn't have a death penalty, condemned criminals were released to kill and rape again.  They have been taking a beating in the media over this near lie about Prop. 34. When California for a few years in the 1970s didn't have a death penalty, it also did not have a life without parole sentence. So some condemned criminals were released, and one did commit murder again.  But Prop. 34 is a switch from death to life without parole. No guilty murderer can be released from prison because of Prop. 34.

Finally, the cost issue is not trivial. The Legislative Analyst's Office is very good at fiscal impact analysis, and there is no reason not to believe their estimate of the costs savings of around $100 million a year if Prop. 34 switches California from the death penalty to life without parole.  It currently costs about $90,000 more per year to keep an death row inmate in prison than it costs for other inmates, and those costs have been rising.  The fastest growing segment of the state budget has been prisons. The death penalty is part of that cost where we are getting little benefit for our spending and creating a less just, not more just, system in the process.


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Adrian Moore is Vice President, Policy


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