Capital Embarrassment

lunedì, 2012-10-22; 13:39:14

This November, Californians have a lot to vote for. The President, a senator, Congressional representatives, and many state and local representatives are up for election, not to mention the various measures and propositions on the ballot. Statewide, Californians have a huge slate of state initiatives to understand and decide on.

Before proceeding any further: if you haven’t yet registered to vote in California, do so now. Just last month, California started accepting voter registrations online here. Today is the last day to register if you want to participate in the elections next month. You have until midnight to submit the form.

Back to the issue at hand: of the statewide initiatives on this November’s ballot, the most important one concerns the death penalty, Proposition 34.

Like Proposition 8 four years ago, the meanings of “yes” and “no” are a bit confusing. Usually, voting “no” on a voter initiative preserves the status quo. In contrast, for a referendum, like Proposition 40 on this year’s ballot, a “yes” preserves a law that was already passed. Confusingly, both are labelled “propositions”.

With Proposition 34, voting “no” preserves the death penalty in California. Voting “yes” abolishes it. Here are three reasons to vote yes, and get rid of the death penalty.


Contrary to what you might expect, incarcerating someone for life is actually cheaper than putting them to death. Since balanced budgets are the concern du jour, this is one of the most potent arguments for voting yes this election season.

Why is it more expensive to put someone to death? Because of all the costs for all the inevitable appeals, last-minute stays, and procedures that the state needs to go through in order to finally get to execute someone. And this is how it should be: if we allow the death penalty, we should be absolutely sure that proper procedures were followed at every step of the way.

According to the Official Voter Information Guide of California, a fiscal analysis was done by the state on proposition 34, and here are the fiscal effects of voting yes:

In total, the measure would result in net savings to state and local governments related to murder trials, appellate litigation, and state corrections. These savings would likely be about $100 million annually in the first few years, growing to about $130 million annually thereafter. The actual amount of these annual savings could be higher or lower by tens of millions of dollars, depending on various factors including how the measure is implemented and the rate of death sentences and executions that would take place in the future if this measure were not approved by voters.


If money concerns don’t sway you, then the doubt in the system should. Even with all the appeals and procedures and wait time for putting someone to death, there is still a significant portion of prisoners on death row who are likely innocent.

The most well-known effort to exonerate innocent victims on death row is The Innocence Project. They primarily prove that convicted individuals could not have possibly committed the crimes through DNA evidence. Despite the availability of DNA testing for several decades now, many of these prisoners may have been convicted decades ago when it was not available to them.

Amazingly, even though DNA evidence is now readily available and can still be used for crimes that happened years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States only recently ruled that prisoners have the right to get DNA testing after they’ve been convicted. Many of these convictions were based on shaky eyewitness testimony and circumstantial evidence, and DNA testing could easily prove that they didn’t commit the crimes they were convicted of.

To date, The Innocence Project has cleared 300 people of the crimes they were convicted for. 17 of those were on death row. According to the Death Penalty Information Center and their fact sheet, there have been 1308 executions in the United States since 1976. 141 prisoners on death row have been exonerated in that time. That’s about a 10% error rate.


I don’t think it’s acceptable that 10% of the people that we execute are innocent.

And even when innocent prisoners are exonerated, they’ve been in prison for decades, and are barely able to cope with reintegrating into society. Exonerating them doesn’t give them back the decades of life they lost, and their future decades are often not that bright.

There are 3170 inmates on death row as of April 2012. 724 are in California. Statistically speaking, by voting yes on Proposition 34, you can save 72 people from being wrongfully executed.


This is perhaps the weakest argument of the three, but I believe there’s a moral imperative not to execute people, regardless of whether they’re guilty or not.

State execution is tantamount to giving up on a person. The (often missed) point of incarceration, fines, house arrest, or any other consequence of breaking a law is that it teaches that person that what they did is wrong. It’s not about revenge.

It’s such an important point that it bears repeating:

Justice is not revenge.

The state should not be in the business of “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” justice. That is irresponsible and reprehensible. We should be committed to rehabilitating convicted prisoners so that they can be reintegrated into society, understand what they did wrong, and be able to function normally. Sure, that’s doesn’t seem to be the end result of incarceration today; we certainly have more to do on that front as well. But that doesn’t justify killing someone just because they killed someone else.

To be sure, convicted murderers shouldn’t necessarily be released from prison, ever. But the goal is still the same: to try and reintegrate them into society. To understand the circumstances in their life that led them to that event, and to prevent that from happening again.

Killing someone is the ultimate repudiation of rehabilitation, and it is wrong, no matter how you slice it.

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