Prop 34: California Sees the Greatest Civil Liberties Loss This Election Day


True or false: Killing is wrong.

On Election Day, Californians decided the answer is false, rejecting Proposition 34 which would have replaced the death penalty with a sentence of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. The defeat of Prop 34 was the greatest civil liberties loss of the election, with Californians deciding to continue executing prisoners despite its high cost, moral qualms about the practice, and inconclusive evidence about its ability to deter crime.  

Californians defeated Prop 34 by relatively narrow margins, with 52.8% voting to keep capital punishment and 47.2% voting to abolish it. The numbers represent a shift in voter perceptions on the issue, influenced in part by a growing body of evidence mounting against capital punishment.

The cost savings of Proposition 34 were significant, with California’s nonpartisan legislative analyst estimating $130 million per year in savings from what tax payers currently spend on capital punishment prosecution and appeals cases. In total, Californians have spent $4 billion on capital punishment since it was reinstated in 1978 — a staggering $308 million for each of the 13 executions carried out since then.  

The proposition would have directed money saved to two causes: victims’ families and improving public safety. Under the measure, convicted murderers would have to work while in prison, placing their earnings in a fund for victims’ families. $100 million of the expected savings from abolishing the death sentence was proposed to be redirected to investigation of the state’s worst crimes, unsolved rapes (56%) and murders (46%).

California currently leads the country in the number of inmates on death row, with 727 individuals awaiting execution. In the U.S., 37 states continue to allow the practice, which has been outlawed in over two-thirds of the countries worldwide. Of the handful of countries that continue capital punishment, the United States is a leader in the most death sentences carried out, joining China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen at the top of the list.  

Opponents of the death penalty cite many ethical arguments against the practice, including the execution of innocent individuals. As of September 2011, 17 death row inmates had been exonerated by the use of DNA tests, with other known cases of individuals exonerated by DNA after their execution. The number of exonerated death row inmates would likely be much higher if all had access to DNA testing. Many inmates do not, as DNA evidence exists in only a fraction of death row murder cases and some jurisdictions refuse to permit inmates DNA testing methods, arguing that this would reopen too many old cases.

The execution of innocent people was one of many reasons uniting faith communities in support of Prop 34. The Catholic Bishops of California, the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, and the Episcopal Diocese of California were four of the 112 faith and religious organizations to endorse Prop 34.  

Beyond moral reasons justifying a yes vote on Prop 34, there were the scientific reasons. The National Research Council recently issued a report stating the inconclusive nature of existing research on capital punishment’s ability to deter crime. Without clear evidence of deterrence above and beyond life imprisonment, civil rights organizations argue the death penalty violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Disappointing as the defeat of Prop 34 may be, supporters hope that the propositions’ near passage will motivate people to more actively support the initiative in the future. I, for one, plan on joining the league of murder victims’ families against capital punishment in California. Having personally experienced the murder of my only brother, I am ready for the killing to stop, and where better to start than at the highest levels of state.

This article also appeared in San Diego's Union Tribune.