In November the SAFE California Act initiative will give state voters the chance to end the death penalty here. Since much bigger minds than mine have taken a look at exactly what having a death penalty is doing for California, let’s begin with a few of things they have already observed.
Capital cases can often drain as much as $1 million from counties. Then more state and federal money can and will be spent on special incarceration and on appeals. If those appeals produce a retrial, counties foot the bill all over again.
The death penalty, in looking for greater justice for victims, instead often creates situations in which the survivors and victim’s families must continue to actively participate in a nightmare. Years – sometimes decades – after a crime has been committed, appeals can force families to face killers and would-be killers again in court and produce yet another guilty verdict with the punishment of reliving the suffering inflicted on the innocent.
Since California voted to reinstate the death penalty in 1978 with the Briggs initiative, the state has spent an estimated $4 billion to execute 13 people. SAFE would end the death penalty and allocate $100 million over three years to solve murders and rapes in California. SAFE’s sponsors argue that 46 percent of murders and 54 percent of rapes go unsolved every year and the resources created would be spent solving those crimes and not supporting a “broken” death penalty.
In a Feb. 12 Los Angeles Times editorial Ron Briggs, son of former State Senator John Briggs, said that while his family had run a grassroots campaign to pass the Briggs initiative in 1978 they were now united in endorsing the SAFE act. From that editorial: “We thought our 1978 initiative created a system to support victims’ families. It didn’t. The only people benefiting today are the lawyers who handle expensive appeals and the criminals who are able to keep their cases alive interminably. The Briggs death penalty law in California simply does not work.”
All that comes before the often emotional feelings we might have individually about the death penalty. I know I get emotional when I hear yet another story of justice finally realized by means of DNA or just plain hard work on the part of advocates for those unjustly sentenced and finally released after having spent years in prison. Those pushing SAFE argue that since 139 people nationally have been freed from death row after they were found to be innocent, the chance that innocent people are sometime being executed remains disturbingly high.
SAFE would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole and would require inmates to work and pay restitution to the victims compensation fund. So we might agree that the elephant still in the room on this is whether we feel that’s enough.
It can become even more difficult to wrestle with this if one takes a wide view and pulls in such things as the trend in gun carry laws, with 49 states now allowing citizens to carry certain concealed firearms in public. My home state of Wisconsin recently passed a carry law and during some Christmas shopping I was surrealistically struck by the number by stores with signs asserting that guns were not allowed inside. Guns don’t really argue one way or another about the death penalty; they simply allow individuals to administer it at their discretion. If California joins New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, and recently Illinois in repealing the death penalty, could we soon be a nation asserting that its citizens make split-second life and death decisions on the street that are at least as good as the ones we spend months deliberating in our courts with a jury of our peers?
Perhaps fortunately, the strongest arguments for the Safe act have more to do with bringing sense and practicality to the administration of justice than they do with unwieldy arguments about how and when we invoke our basic humanity. In that same LA Times editorial Ron Briggs remembers his Dad’s fondness for saying “Facts are stubborn things.” Without even touching on any moral conundrums, Briggs unemotionally explains that “The ineffective legal beast created by California’s death penalty laws costs taxpayers more than $100 million annually and ties up the lives of prosecutors and victims who could be moving on to other things.”
After writing his superb book about Utah killer Gary Gilmore, “The Executioner’s Song,” author Norman Mailer said that he wasn’t sure the justice system needed the death penalty but he thought that perhaps we needed it: That we needed to know it was in place, waiting there for those who richly deserved it and that maybe its purpose was to give us that comfort. Whatever comfort it might provide, the administration of it in California has reached “WTF?” dimensions of cost in resources and human energy. California now has 700 prisoners on death row, more than twice that of Texas. There may ultimately be greater cruelty to a sentence of life without parole, but maybe we should first demonstrate the good sense to simultaneously stop both the hemorrhaging of resources and the nagging suspicion that we might execute an innocent person… by giving SAFE a long and thoughtful look.