Widgets Magazine

State ban on death penalty likely, say law professors

University professors, on-campus faith groups and the Stanford chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have expressed support for an initiative that could end the California death penalty following a Nov. 2012 vote. The proposed “Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement” (SAFE) California Act would replace the death penalty with a term of life imprisonment without parole.


The SAFE California Act would repeal the 1978 Briggs death penalty initiative, which was approved by state voters under Proposition 7 and broadened the class of crimes subject to the death penalty. A ballot initiative, such as Proposition 7, can only be repealed by another ballot measure.


Ron Briggs, a principal figure behind the initial Proposition 7, has been one of the most outspoken supporters of the SAFE California Act. Briggs attributed his change of mind to the cost of implementing the death penalty, noting that since 1978, California has spent $4 billion on the program while executing only 13 criminals. He said that Proposition 7 has also failed to reduce the state’s death row population as intended; California’s death row population has instead tripled since 1978.


Briggs also emphasized the personal burden borne by witnesses obliged to testify repeatedly throughout an appeal process that can extend over decades.


“We have an opportunity to put something on the ballot – and that’s so superior to the legislative process – to take down a state program that’s not functioning and never will,” Briggs said.


According to a press release by the SAFE California Campaign, passing the act would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis. Savings generated would be reallocated to crime prevention, investigation and prosecution efforts.


“The death penalty costs exponentially more than life imprisonment without parole,” said Lawrence Marshall, Stanford law professor. “Money can be better spent in ways that better serve law enforcement and victims’ interests.”


Observing that California’s current fiscal crisis has resulted in spending cuts for a range of state government functions, Marshall argued for budget cuts in expenditures linked to the death penalty.


“The idea that we have a budget crisis requiring us to lay off police officers and teachers, and to say that the death penalty is the thing that we’re going to keep, seems to me to be absurd beyond words,” he said.


The act would also require offenders to pay compensation to a state victims fund – a measure that would apply to all offenders currently on death row.


Marshall added that the act would prevent the execution of wrongfully convicted people, noting that the death penalty has been disproportionately applied to minority defendants.


Marshall emphasized the significance of the initiative if approved by the California electorate, arguing that the state “has the most dysfunctional capital justice system” and the largest death row in the United States even as the death penalty enjoys increasingly narrower support.


“There’s clearly momentum in the direction of abolition [of the death penalty],” Marshall said. “If California was to do it – particularly through citizen initiative – there’s no doubt that’ll be a very important moment.”


Kristen Bell ’05 J.D. ’13 expressed optimism about the initiative’s chances of success, citing the degree of student involvement in collecting signatures and advocating voter turnout on the issue. She highlighted the support of the Stanford chapter of the NAACP and other on-campus faith groups.


“The response on campus has been really positive,” Bell said. “Initially I wasn’t very optimistic, but more and more people wanted to get involved. We didn’t have to do that much to get people behind it.”


Noting that the campaign for abolishing the death penalty encompasses rationales ranging in nature from moral to fiscal, Bell said the current system is inefficient, but also argued against a punishment based on “retribution.”


“There’s no real way to administer the death penalty in an objective or fair way,” said Cathleen Hamel J.D. ’13. “It’s not worth the cost that an imperfect system creates.”


Hamel noted that the SAFE California Act may be on the same ballot as an initiative for the repeal of California’s controversial Three Strikes Law and expressed optimism that support for the two measures may coalesce.


“I imagine that if someone votes for one, they’ll vote for both,” Hamel said.


“There’s a significant group of people in law enforcement who support the death penalty, and some victims groups,” Marshall said. “I don’t think anyone knows how invested those groups will be in spending on advertising to try to defeat the measure.”


The initiative required slightly more than 500,000 signatures to qualify for placement on the ballot, and more than 800,000 signatures were submitted on March 1, 2012. If the California Secretary of State validates a sufficient number of signatures, the act will be placed on the November ballot.


Judith Pelpola contributed to this report

About Marshall Watkins

Marshall Watkins is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily, having previously worked as the paper's executive editor and as the managing editor of news. Marshall is a junior from London majoring in Economics, and can be reached at mtwatkins "at" stanford "dot" edu.