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Death penalty opponents move closer to November ballot initiative

California lethal injection table
Capital punishment opponents announced Thursday they have submitted 800,000 signatures to election authorities to put a measure on the November ballot that would ask voters to replace the death penalty with sentences of life without the possibility of parole.

Efforts to repeal the death penalty have failed repeatedly in California since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978.

But organizers of the SAFE California Act contend that polls show majority support for an initiative that would replace death sentences with an ironclad guarantee that the worst criminals stay in prison for the rest of their lives.

Supporters of the initiative say it will save the state hundreds of millions that would be better spent on schools and public safety.

“Those of us in law enforcement know that the best way to prevent crime is to solve it. Replacing the death penalty with a punishment of life in prison without parole will free up funds for critical tools like DNA testing in the shocking 46% of murder and 56% of reported rape cases that remain unsolved in our state every year,” said Jeanne Woodford, a former warden at San Quentin State Prison who oversaw four executions during her tenure.

She is now campaigning for the initiative to replace death with life sentences. The signatures submitted to county election officials in each of the 58 counties must be verified, but campaign sponsors said they were confident they would easily surpass the 504,000 valid endorsements needed to get the issue on the ballot in November.

Initiative backers contend replacing death with mandatory life in prison will expedite justice for crime victims and cease squandering unnecessary sums on death row’s 725 condemned inmates and the multiple appeals they are allowed when their lives are at stake.

“Our focus in times of fiscal crisis should be crystal clear. The death penalty wastes $184 million a year over life without parole,” said Gil Garcetti, a former Los Angeles County district attorney whose support for the death penalty has been eroded by the soaring costs of maintaining a punishment seldom meted out.

But those who support capital punishment say the opponents’ cost-savings figures are inflated. The number of new death sentences fell dramatically last year and for the last decade have been well below the rate of the 1990s, said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

“The other side of the coin is the cost of keeping all of these prisoners to the end of their lives, if the promise of true life-without-parole is to be kept,” he said. “Medical costs are a large and growing part of the corrections budget, and those costs escalate dramatically with age.”

A three-year study of capital punishment in California released last year estimated that maintaining a death penalty has cost taxpayers $4 billion since 1978, while only 13 executions were carried out.

With litigation keeping the death penalty on hold for the last six years and likely for at least two years longer, the report by a federal judge and a law professor projected that taxpayers will likely spend another $1 billion every five years to keep a punishment that is largely illusory.

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-- Carol J. Williams

Photo: The lethal injection table at San Quentin Prison. Credit: California Department of Corrections.

 
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