California has a death penalty that actually isn’t a death penalty at all, primarily because of how it is administered. Seven hundred forty-seven inmates now sit on California’s Death Row, where zero death sentences have been carried out in the past 10 years.
People have died on Death Row during that decade, but from natural causes.
Which is ridiculous, but happens to be the present-day reality, which is that the death penalty means murderers will be put in prison and be cared for until they die of heart attacks or some other fatal disease.
Two California propositions in the coming general election address the state’s so-called death penalty.
One of these, California Proposition 62, would do away with the death penalty as we know it (or don’t know it, as the case may be) and replace it with a sentence of life without parole for the heinous crimes, such as murder, that normally would result in a death penalty sentence.
It also would require that life-without-parole prisoners work more to earn money to pay restitution to victims or survivors of victims of their crimes.
(One might ask why the Death Row inmates aren’t working more now to pay back the victims of their indiscretions, but that will have to be the subject of another article, perhaps one on the unintelligibility of the criminal justice system.)
The other measure, Proposition 66, would retain the death penalty pretty much as is, but would dress it up, put lipstick on it and add it to the burdens of the local courts. Instead of being incarcerated in San Quentin as they are now, Death Row prisoners would be held in supposedly beefed-up local jails. What could possibly go wrong with that?
Proposition 66 also would try to speed up appeals, which are the speed bumps of the criminal justice system — speed bumps, by the way, that are meant to provide assurance that rushes to judgment do not take the place of constitutionally guaranteed fair trials.
Arguments against the death penalty — besides the fact that in California it is so poorly administered — include:
• Cost. Death Row prisoners are extremely expensive to keep. Proponents of Prop. 62 say the incarceration cost could be brought down some $150 million a year by turning the death penalty into life without parole. Prop. 66 claims the murderers could be kept less expensively by getting them out of San Quentin, but probably not unless you moved them into rooms at places like the Holiday Inn Express, with guards posted outside the doors. They would get breakfast thrown in for free that way. (Just kidding.)
• Danger of error. Use of DNA and other technologies over the years has cleared some death row prisoners around the country of the charges against them. That is good, but the already-existing appeal time made those tests possible.
• The death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. Virtually all who commit murders and other death-penalty crimes do so out of passion or because they believe they can get away with their crimes. They tend to be people who can’t think straight, or people who are just plain idiots. Pondering the possibility of being executed for a death-penalty crime just isn’t on their intellectual agendas. They are more interested in how they might look in a jail-intake photo.
• Denies closure to the families of victims. If death penalties actually were carried out in California as they are in other states, they would provide closure to many. But that is not what happens. Surviving families are often dragged through decades of hearings that lead only to more hearings. The death penalty as it is presently administered, does nothing for the families of victims except extend their heartache.
The one thing about the death penalty, when it’s properly administered, is that it works, providing the wrong person isn’t the one put to death.
Is there a need to do away with a death penalty that isn’t a death penalty, or to replace it with one that seems more complicated than the old one?
No. That, by the way, is how you should vote on both these propositions.