PD Editorial: Taking the next step on death penalty
Published: Monday, December 3, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 30, 2012 at 6:01 p.m.
California’s death penalty law is badly flawed, but voters aren’t prepared to give up on it.
The Nov. 6 election told us that. What it didn’t tell us, however, is whether voters are willing to do what it takes to make capital punishment work.
Voters delivered a split verdict on criminal-justice measures: They repealed the harshest aspects of the three strikes law while approving stricter penalties for human trafficking and reaffirming their support for capital punishment.
Proposition 34 produced the closest result, but the outcome — a 500,000-vote margin — left little to dispute, with support concentrated in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Only one inland county — Yolo — voted to repeal the death penalty.
We endorsed Proposition 34, echoing the arguments of its sponsors that capital punishment simply costs too much and delivers too little. Replacing the death penalty with sentences of life without parole promised substantial savings in an era of budget deficits. Moreover, money could have been reallocated within the present Corrections Department budget to address federal court mandates for improved conditions in state prisons.
A majority of voters rejected that reasoning, and we must respect their decision.
But rejecting Proposition 34 doesn’t change the fact that Death Row inmates are more likely to die from natural causes than a lethal injection.
Barring significant changes to the state’s 34-year-old death penalty law, California will keep spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars on a program that doesn’t produce the result that its supporters want.
There are remedies, but they require public support and, in some cases, voter approval.
The biggest obstacle to speedy executions — and the most common source of public complaints — is a lengthy appeals process. Appeals can’t be eliminated; they’re a constitutional requirement.
However, inmates now wait five years or more before a state public defender is appointed to review their case. Hiring more public defenders would speed up the process, and it’s a step the Legislature can take on its own. But there’s little political benefit to spending scarce tax dollars on Death Row inmates while other programs are getting cut.
Eliminating direct appeals to the state Supreme Court also could speed up the process. Sending cases to lower courts first may sound counterintuitive, but that would divide the workload and narrow cases to key legal issues that the Supreme Court must decide. A side benefit would be freeing the justices to devote more time to other cases. But that change would require voter approval.
Some legal scholars have suggested changing the criteria for the death penalty. The law voters approved in 1978 identified 10 special circumstances that justified the death penalty. Now, there are nearly 40.
Prosecutors, crime victims and law enforcement groups signed ballot arguments against Proposition 34. They bring expertise, influence and sad experience to the issue of capital punishment. If they want the system to work, it’s time for them to shift their focus from defending the law to fixing its flaws.
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