This November, Californians will vote on Proposition 34, the Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement Act (SAFE). The SAFE act replaces California’s death penalty with a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole, saves California taxpayers billions of dollars, and establishes funds to improve rape and murder investigation.
California executed 13 people since 1978 and spent more than $4 billion on the capital punishment during that time (an average of $308 million for each execution). A study conducted by U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell projects that California will spend an additional $5 billion under the current capital punishment system by 2030. To my mind, this is money poorly spent on a system that gives broken promises to victims’ families, who are left with years of emotional trials and retrials that rarely culminate in the execution of their loved one’s killer. California can and should use those billions to fund essential services like education and other social services that are facing cuts because of the budget deficit.
So what does the money allocated to capital punishment pay for? Since Judge Jeremy Fogel’s 2006 ruling put a moratorium on California executions, all scheduled executions have been pending new lethal injection protocols, which were again rejected by Judge Faye D’Opal at the end of 2011. Seven-hundred, twenty-four death row inmates are in a holding pattern, with the confinement cost for each inmate equaling more than $90,000 above that for those in maximum-security prisons. With other factors, including the greatly increased price of trials and retrials for death penalty cases, it is estimated that California would save well more than $100 million every year by adopting the SAFE act.
One reason that people support the death penalty is their fear that criminals convicted of violent crimes will be released back into society and reoffend. The sponsors of the SAFE act are equally invested in public safety, and actually go a step beyond the current practice. Not only would those currently on death row be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole, but they would be required to “work and pay restitution into a victim’s compensation fund.” Additionally, the SAFE act establishes a fund that takes $30 million a year from the first three years of budget savings, and uses this to enhance the investigation of unsolved murder and rape cases. With 46 percent of murders and 56 percent of rapes going unsolved in California, it makes a lot of sense to use our money where it can have the greatest positive impact.
The list of supporters for the SAFE act is impressive, including former San Quentin warden Jeanne Woodford, Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, and legislators Steven Fajardo and Ron Briggs, both of whom were initially instrumental in writing legislation to reinstate and then expand the death penalty in the late ’70s. These individuals, with extensive experience in various aspects of the California state prison system, decided to sponsor the SAFE act because they have concluded that the death penalty has failed and “serves no useful purpose.”
Beyond the compelling financial reasons, I support the SAFE act because of the stories I have read from victims of violent crimes and their families, many of whom have come out in support of the SAFE act. A common theme in their stories is massive frustration with the California capital punishment system, which causes them to relive their tragic loss through decades of trials and retrials. According to Lorrain Taylor, whose two sons were murdered, the death penalty “does not make our streets safer, and it takes away resources from things that prevent violence, like keeping our kids in school and putting cops on the street.”
For more information on the SAFE act, see safecalifornia.org/about/coalition.
Dan Gross is a current graduate student in the Masters of Social Work program at the University of Southern California. He works as a mental health case manager at a local nonprofit, where he’s been employed for 11 years. He’s a native of San Luis Obispo. Send comments to the executive editor at [email protected].