Prop 62: To Be or Not to Be

Above: Illustration "EXECUTION BY ELECTRICITY SHORTLY TO BE INTRODUCED IN N. Y. STATE" from the JUNE 30, 1888 Scientific American.

By Chris Salazar

"For centuries the death penalty, often accompanied by barbarous refinements, has been trying to hold crime in check; yet crime persists. Why? Because the instincts that are warring in man are not, as the law claims, constant forces in a state of equilibrium." —Albert Camus

California is one of 30 states that practice capital punishment. The inefficient system has cost Californian taxpayers $4 billion since it was reinstated in 1978 after a six year hiatus when capital punishment was found to be unconstitutional in 1972. And while the retributive nature of the punishment beckons the lesser angels of our nature, the system is broken.

Currently, there are 741 inmates on death row. But their finality stretches far beyond the horizon visible from their prison cell because the appeals process is incredibly slow-going. Consider that California has only executed 13 inmates since 1976.

Many in favor of capital punishment often scoff at the lengthy appeals process suggesting that the tortoiselike procedure be gutted entirely. But that’s nonsensical. The justice system cannot function properly sans appeals. If the process was ransacked, the 156 inmates released from death row with evidence of their innocence since 1973 would forever remain bereft of life. The most recent exoneration to occur in the golden state was in 2000 when Oscar Lee Morris’ accuser, Joe West, came clean.

“The testimony I gave against Oscar Morris,” said West in a 1997 sworn declaration, “. . .was a lie.” The confession came several weeks before his passing.

So, capital punishment could work if the U.S. was more like China and simply disposed of criminals equally rapid—except Morris was innocent, and there are no do-overs.

Voting yes on proposition 62 would repeal California’s death penalty, mitigating fiscal and moral decline. While recent decades saw greater voter support in favor of capital punishment, the idea that revenge is virtuous still holds prestige. The sentiment is understandable, justifiable even, but the data suggests that voters may have to challenge their perception.

In 2009, Professors Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock of the University of Colorado conducted a study to discern whether capital punishment is a greater deterrent than long-term imprisonment. The study, "Do Excursions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists", published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, found that “There is overwhelming consensus among America’s top criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question fails to support the threat or use of the death penalty.”

While voting yes on proposition 62 would repeal California’s death penalty, replacing it with life in prison without the possibility of parole, requiring those prisoners to work and pay restitution to the victims’ families, voting yes on proposition 66 accomplishes nothing that repealing the death penalty couldn’t do better and faster.