Kill the Death Penalty in California


A recent strapline on Twitter declared that California will vote in November on ending the death penalty. I could not believe my eyes; the vote was one of the first bits of good news to come out of America that actually resonates with my beliefs in criminal justice reform.

More than 500,000 people signed the initiative statute to repeal the death penalty — the issue will appear on the November ballot. The measure will transform the lives of those currently awaiting death sentences, changing their sentence to life in prison. The idea is that those currently on death row will have to become productive while in prison, and will work to financially repay some of the debt to their victims families, as well as the state.

I remember the storm around Stanley "Tookie" William's California execution, and it seems only right that there has not been a state execution since January 17, 2006. The logical next step is to send a little bit of hope to those currently wasting away inside California's jails. There are currently 725 prisoners waiting to take their last walk, and this vote —  if it goes through —will provide some relief.

Obviously, some would argue that as those criminals have been convicted for murder, they should suffer the same sort of justice that they dished out to their victims. It seems like a natural reaction to take an eye for an eye, until we start to realize that the whole world would go blind. There is nothing wrong with hating those that show no love towards you, but just imagine if we were all able to show love instead.

I do not believe that this is just a frivolous appeal; it is a real chance for the world to pay attention to the land of the free. Instead of California ruling by force, has the chance to rule by compassion. Let's hope that the vote goes through to ensure that reason can triumph over passion.

Since California decided to reinstate the death penalty in 1978, 13 prisoners have been executed by the state. A recent study suggests that the state was spending about $184 million a year maintaining the death penalty system. After the last execution in 2006, a federal judge called time on executions until San Quentin built a new death chamber, improved the lethal injection procedures, and made further improvements to the entire process.

California will be following other states who have decided to vote against the death penalty, including Illinois, New Mexico, and New Jersey, who all chose to abolish the death penalty in recent years. In 2004, New York's death penalty law was declared unconstitutional. Other state legislatures are considering bills to end the death penalty, and Oregon's governor has said he would halt all executions on his watch.

There are some keys reasons to consider abolishing the death penalty, the first of which is exonerations. There have been three people exonerated from California's death row. Ernest "Shujaa" Graham was exonerated in 1981, 5 years after conviction. Troy Jones was exonerated in 1996, 14 years after conviction. Oscar Morris was exonerated in 2000, 17 years after conviction. There was no DNA evidence in any of these cases.

The high cost of managing the death penalty system is another factor that should be considered. If the death penalty was replaced by life without parole, millions of dollars could be spent on violence-prevention efforts, solving unsolved cases, and increasing victim services. 

It would certainly improve the image of California around the world, as many countries have already abolished the death penalty. I would also argue that the threat of execution is not a real deterrent for criminals. The U.S. has more gun crime than other countries, even though the death penalty is still being used. 

There are many alternatives to the death penalty that should be considered. An organization I am affiliated with, The Forgiveness Project, does work with victims, offenders, and prisons to introduce other ways of making people take responsibility for the crimes, and help find some peace. The ideas being discussed by The Forgiveness Project could be used in California right now.