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PD Editorial: Taking the next step on death penalty

  • execution holding cells. San Quentin State Prison, California Department of Corrections photo

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Voters delivered a split verdict on criminal-justice measures: They repealed the harshest aspects of the three strikes law while approving stricter penalties for human trafficking and reaffirming their support for capital punishment.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.


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