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California ballot measure would outlaw death penalty

A view of the holding cell where death-row inmates are held before execution at San Quentin State Prison

A proposed measure that would replace capital punishment in California with a life term without possibility of parole has qualified for the November ballot.

If passed, the measure would make California the 18th state in the nation without a death penalty. During the last five years, four states have replaced the death penalty and Connecticut soon will follow.

Growing numbers of conservatives in California have joined the effort to repeal the state's capital punishment law, expressing frustration with its price tag and the rarity of executions.

California has executed 13 inmates in 23 years; prisoners are far more likely to die of old age on death row than by the executioner's needle.

November's ballot measure would commute the sentences of more than 700 people on death row to life without possibility of parole, a term that would then become the state's most severe form of criminal punishment.

Most death row inmates would be returned to the general prison population and be expected to work. Their earnings would go to crime victims.

Backing the new measure are Ron Briggs, who ran the 1978 campaign for a successful ballot initiative that expanded the reach of California's death penalty; Donald J. Heller, an ex-prosecutor who wrote the 1978 initiative; Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin State Prison who oversaw four executions; and former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who said his experience as D.A. helped change his mind about the fairness of the system.

Although their views on the proposition are unknown, former California Chef Justice Ronald M. George and current Chief Tani Cantil-Sakauye, both Republican former prosecutors, have stated publicly that the death penalty system is not working.

The chorus of criticism has death penalty advocates worried, even though California voters have historically favored capital punishment, passing several measures over the last few decades to toughen criminal penalties and expand the number of crimes punishable by death.

A three-year study by a judge and a law professor concluded last year that the death penalty in California costs $183 million more to administer than life without possibility of parole, and that California's 13 executions cost taxpayers $4 billion.

The additional expense includes legal costs for expanded trials and appeals and for housing inmates in single cells.

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Photo: A view of the holding cell where death-row inmates are held before execution at San Quentin State Prison. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.

 
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