Prop 34: Death knell for death penalty in California?

I have long been opposed to the death penalty. Capital punishment (such a euphemism!) is cruel, unusual and arbitrary, yet it does not deter violent crime. States with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states without it. And capital punishment falls disproportionately on the poor and people of color.

The death penalty is irreversible. If the state executes an innocent person there is no redress — a concern made more acute as DNA evidence exonerates more of the wrongly convicted.

The death penalty is enormously expensive, because the mandatory appeals procedures cost more than life imprisonment. California spent $4 billion to administer capital punishment over the past 33 years – more than $300 million per execution.

Furthermore, when the state executes criminals, the state models the very behavior it is attempting to prevent. We must stop killing people to demonstrate that killing people is wrong.

American support for the death penalty is in sharp contrast with a global trend toward its abolition. A 1980s attempt to bring back the death penalty in Great Britain was decisively defeated. Canada abolished capital punishment in 1976, Australia in 1985. The European Union made the abolition of the death penalty a condition for membership.

Conversely, consider the nations where the death penalty routinely is employed: Iran, North Korea, Syria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba under Castro, Haiti under the Duvaliers, the old Soviet Union, South Africa before the end of apartheid. In a global context, strong support for the death penalty puts the United States in pretty bad company. And within the U.S., the states with the most executions are the states with the most lynchings a century ago.

Support for the death penalty in California has dropped after peaking at about 80 percent in the 1980s. But even then, about half would abolish capital punishment if those who commit especially heinous crimes were imprisoned for life with no possibility of parole.

A 2009 poll showed that most Californians would support a sentence of life without parole rather than the death penalty for those convicted of murder. If the life sentence was combined with a requirement that the inmate work to make restitution to the family of the victim, only 26 percent of Californians would opt for the death penalty.

Proposition 34 on the November ballot proposes exactly that: It abolishes the death penalty, but assure that those who commit the most horrible crimes be imprisoned for life without parole and be required to make restitution.

Gordon Clanton teaches Sociology at San Diego State University.

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