California has 747 inmates on Death Row, almost twice as many as any other state.
Most of them will die of natural causes regardless of what happens on Election Day, when voters will decide two capital punishment measures.
Proposition 62 would eliminate the death penalty in California and commute the sentences of condemned inmates to life in prison without possibility of parole. Proposition 66 is supposed to expedite executions by limiting appeals.
Only one of these initiatives can deliver what it promises, and that’s Proposition 62.
Voters can end a wildly expensive program that hasn’t succeeded by any objective measure — and never will. California has spent more than $5 billion on capital punishment and carried out 13 executions since the death penalty was restored in 1976.
During the same four decades, 103 condemned inmates died from suicide, prison violence, drug abuse or old age and other natural causes.
Proposition 62 acknowledges the obvious. California’s capital punishment system delivers neither swift justice nor certain closure for victims’ families. The cost is exorbitant, even by government standards. As for deterrence, states without the death penalty have recorded lower homicide rates in recent years than states with capital punishment.
Repealing the death penalty would save $150 million a year, according to the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst.
Proposition 66 seeks to speed up executions by eliminating bottlenecks in the appeals process.
But there are persuasive arguments that this initiative would instead result in more litigation and, as the legislative analyst concluded, increase state costs by “tens of millions of dollars annually for many years.”
Appellate court review is required by the U.S. Supreme Court, and a primary cause for delays in the state court system is a chronic shortage of lawyers who specialize in death penalty appeals. It isn’t uncommon for condemned inmates to wait five years or more before an attorney is assigned to their case. Then, more time is needed to study the record and prepare an appeal. Only then does the judicial review begin.
Rather than funding an expansion of the state public defender’s office, which handles almost all death penalty appeals, Proposition 66 would require all attorneys who practice in California appellate courts, regardless of specialty and training, to accept judicial appointments to capital cases. Claims of inattentive and incompetent counsel already are common in death penalty appeals, and conscripting lawyers would only invite more such challenges.
So would imposing arbitrary time limits for courts to rule on appeals — another one of Proposition 66’s speed-up rules.
Moreover, much of the appeals process in capital cases takes place in federal courts, which are beyond the reach of any state ballot measure. It was a federal court that invalidated California’s execution protocol in 2006. The state has yet to formally adopt a new drug for lethal injections, and that, too, is likely to require federal court approval.
More than 150 condemned inmates have been exonerated in recent years, many of them in the same states that carry out the most executions. California has largely been spared that embarrassment because of its rigorous review of death penalty appeals.
Less judicial scrutiny means more risk of an unjust — and irreversible — mistake. Sentencing killers to life without parole would save tens of millions of dollars a year without releasing a single violent criminal from state prison.