California Death Penalty's Dueling Ballot Measures: Only One Makes Sense

The death penalty is a problem in California. Where its effectiveness is debated in other states, in the country's most populated state it is simply understood to be broken. Since 1978, California has spent more than $4 billion on a death penalty system that has only executed 13 of the nearly 1,000 sentenced to death.

The execution chamber has collected dust for over a decade, leaving roughly 750 prisoners stuck on a toothless death row that will likely remain without bite until the day it either dies or is drastically overhauled.

Fortunately, California voters now have the unusual privilege of deciding between solutions intended to 'fix' California's death penalty debacle once and for all. In November, two dueling ballot measures will vie to see which one makes more sense to Californians.

In the one hand, the one attached to the death penalty opponents, you have 'The Justice That Works Act of 2016,' which will become better known as "Proposition 62." Nothing shocking here. They simply want to put an end to the debate, finally converting all death sentences to life without parole. 

As Ron Briggs, former El Dorado County Supervisor and initiative supporter, puts it, "Imagine a government program that spends $287 million a year and absolutely nothing gets done. What would you do with that program?" Proposition 62 ensures that the worst criminals stay in prison forever while saving the state nearly billions of dollars -- nearly $5 billion in five years -- money better invested in education, victims services, and keeping communities safer.

In the other hand, this one fused to those who support the death penalty, is the 'California Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act.' This one, seemingly a more novel approach, is an initiative aimed at speeding the death penalty process along by imposing new requirements and deadlines on the courts to resolve appeals more quickly.

As John McGinness, former Sacramento County Sheriff, sees it, "It epitomizes a reasonable solution versus what has been developed in the state as of now, that frankly is void of reasonability."

But which solution is really the more reasonable one? 

With a view from the heights of Mount Shasta, both measures appear to address the agreed-upon problems head on -- namely, the system's ineffeciency, its expense, and its cruelness to victims. But when you get down in the Valley and look more carefully, only one can effectively solve the problem for good, while the other would likely create new rounds of problems that will extend the frustration of Californians for years to come.

In order for the 'Death Penalty Reform and Savings' Initiative to work, more lawyers are needed to help unclog the system. One of the challenges in the current California death penalty scheme is that there just aren't enough qualifed capital attorneys to defend anyone expeditiously. So the measure "requires attorneys who currently accept noncapital appeals to also accept death penalty appeals."

Capital defenders exist in large part because they are passionate in fighting for clients on death row. Most cases that have been overturned due to actual innocence -- three in California -- succeeded because counsel went the extra mile that inexperienced counsel, those who have no interest in capital defense, would likely never go. 

The result of the new reform: a greater likelihood of innocent defendants being wrongfully executed. 

Repealing the death penalty is the only way to guarantee that this never happens again.

Commercials for reform will tout the cost savings for not having to pay to imprison death row prisoners through endless appeals -- you'll hear "tens of millions of dollars saved annually." However, their own Fiscal Impact statement on the ballot measure itself, prepared by California's Legislative Affairs Office, states that the necessary speed-up of the courts would cause "increased state costs that could be in the tens of millions of dollars annually."

Translation: The reform initiative will bring no actual savings to California taxpayers.

On the other hand, that same office estimates that repealing the death penalty will save about $150 million each year!

Proponents of reform will state that the victim will finally receive some compensation because their measure states, "death row inmates must work and pay victim restitution." However, the repeal initiative also requires victim restitution.

Victims will receive restitution no matter which ballot measure Californians vote for.

If Californians enjoy spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually to repeatedly have this debate, they should vote for the "Death Penalty Reform and Savings" Initiative.

If, however, Californians want to save substantial taxpayer money and ensure that no one innocent is executed, while fixing this problem for good, there is only one clear decision. Proposition 62.

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