This November, California voters will decide whether to retain or abolish the death penalty in their state. The proposed legislation to remove the death penalty as a sentencing option and replace it with life without parole, known as Prop 34 or the Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California (SAFE) Act, received more than 750,000 signatures to secure its place on the ballot this Fall.
The primary focus for Prop 34 has been the high cost of the California death penalty system and the infrequency of its use. California currently has 724 prisoners on death row, almost twice as many as the next largest death row in Texas. But the last execution in California occurred in January 2006, and the leading cause of death for this population is natural causes after decades of incarceration. Since 1978, just 13 California prisoners have been executed.
A 2011 study conducted by Judge Arthur L. Alarcon of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell found that California currently spends $184 million dollars more per year on the death penalty than it would with a system where life without parole was the maximum punishment. The large number of death row prisoners has also exceeded the availability of defense representation services. There are approximately 100 prisoners on death row who have no legal representation for their automatic direct appeals, and there are more than 300 prisoners awaiting appointment of counsel for state habeas proceedings. Even after counsel is appointed, the funding for the defense effort is often grossly inadequate to allow counsel to provide effective representation. The 2011 study concluded that “[i]t is difficult for the California Supreme Court to attract qualified counsel to represent capital inmates because funds are not available to adequately compensate them.”
The SAFE Act proposes to redistribute the funds that are used to maintain the death penalty system and provide them to law enforcement. The campaign estimates that replacing the death penalty with life without parole would save the state more than $500 million dollars over the next five years, while also allocating $30 million per year to investigating unsolved murder cases. Prop 34 has received nationwide attention and is being closely watched. The result will make headlines in early November.