The Death of Prop 34

The 2012 election had some high points, and the vote on Proposition 34 was not one of them. The initiative would have ended the death penalty in California. It was voted down. It would have been remarkable if it had passed. But it didn’t.

If you think that means the state can go ahead killing axe murderers, here are a couple of facts. Though it has more than 700 people on death row, California has not executed anyone for six years. California has condemned about 900 people to death since 1978, but it has only executed 13.

The death penalty in California is a joke, and it’s not very funny. It’s a expensive farce for one thing. Given the cost of death penalty appeals, the capital phase of murder trials and maintaining death row in San Quentin, the legislative auditor estimated the state would save $100 million a year if the death penalty was gotten rid of.

Furthermore, it’s a joke that’s told on the families of murder victims. We made a promise to them that the murderers of their sons, daughters and spouses would be put to death. But the condemned are a lot more likely to die of old age than die of execution.

I thought of that when I voted on Prop 34, which would have taken that broken promise and put it in writing. If the initiative had passed, all the existing death sentences would have been commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

I lived the first 37 years of my life in Midwestern states with no death penalty. I didn’t feel any more unsafe, and I expect California will go that way eventually. Religious devotion and civilization run against capital punishment, and I think it’s just a matter of time before it’s gotten rid of here.

How that will happen is a good question. The last state to do away with the death penalty was Connecticut. And while they abolished the death penalty for all future criminal cases, they also left it intact for the people who were on death row. That sounds like the most promising path for California.

The people now in San Quentin were sentenced to death, and we should carry it out. That won’t please the ideological backers of the abolishing the death penalty. But we’d be finishing what we started, and we’d be keeping the promises we made to those families.

That would also make voters more likely to accept the abolition of capital punishment. I, for one, wouldn’t shed any tears for the people being put to death. They made a choice to abuse, rape and kill and they’ll suffer the consequences they should have fully expected.

But ultimately the death penalty is too high a price to pay for justice, and it depends too much on a judicial system that’s prone to error. I do wonder what should be the ultimate punishment for people who commit our most terrible crimes. Should it be life in prison without parole? And if it’s life in prison, should serial murderers get access to TVs and computers while they’re incarcerated? Should they get plenty of time to socialize and exercise?

Should the people who commit unspeakable crimes that shock us to the core be treated in prison no differently than someone who held up a liquor store?

This year Anders Behring Breivik was convicted in Norway of murdering 77 people, most of them kids. He was sentenced to 21 years in prison. Twenty-one years?? Is there any American who wouldn’t find that lenient to obscene proportions?

But Norway is a different country and they have to live with their decisions. In California, we have to decide what equals justice. We tried the death penalty,  and that just didn’t work.

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