California Death Penalty: Why keep sentencing people to death?

With 724 inmates, California has by far the largest death row in the United States (Florida comes in second with 407), and yet its last execution was six years ago in 2006 – so why keep sentencing people to death? Proposition 34 on the November 6 ballot sought to answer that question, asking Californians to abolish the death sentence in favour of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Proposition failed.

The United States is one of the few leading western countries that still actively uses the death penalty, something which seems particularly strange and bizarre to those of us living in countries bound by EU law, which has long outlawed the practice. Many Americans are themselves beginning to feel that the 8th Amendment of the US constitution, stating that no ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ be inflicted on citizens, is starting to apply to the modern American death penalty, and are looking for the eventual elimination of it across the country. Although there has been a gradual decline of death sentences and executions in recent years, the decline is slow, far too slow for many anti-death penalty supporters. The possibility of executing innocent people has become much more of a consideration as new technology has helped to exonerate over 100 innocent people condemned to death since 1976, when the Supreme Court case Gregg v. Georgia re-introduced capital punishment across the nation after a ten year moratorium. In 2003, Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 men from death to life after finding that the system was ‘fraught with error.’ Since 1976 the state had executed 12 men and exonerated 13 as innocent. Illinois has since passed legislation (in 2011) officially abolishing the practice.

The high cost of seeking the death penalty has also since come to light, and no state illustrates this better than California. A 2011 study by Judge Arthur Alarcon and Paula Mitchell discovered that capital punishment has cost California $4 billion since 1976. Since the last execution in 2006, the study suggests that the state has spent $1 billion in trials and appeals, and would make savings of $130 million annually if the practice were abolished. Because of California’s recent budgetary trouble, abolitionists assumed that these numbers would work to persuade the public to vote to officially put an end to the California death penalty, replacing the sentence with life without the possibility of parole. However, the ballot on November 6th proved that Californians would not easily let go of capital punishment, despite the cost of the fiscal fallout.

So why did Californians choose to hold on to a practice that is outdated, expensive, and prone to error? Capital punishment is still considered a judicious punishment for those who kill, and it is used as a marker for the ‘most heinous crimes.’ The need to set aside the worst of the worst from just the worst seems to propeller this idea forward. It seems, especially in California’s case, that it is the idea of a death sentence that people approve of – it almost does not seem to matter if the sentences are actually carried out. The perpetrators are officially wiped from the system, complete with death warrant. The expensive lingering in the purgatory of San Quentin is merely a by-product.

The idea of living with the consequences of your actions is a tenet of capital punishment. Those who kill deserve to die, no matter what the cost or whether or not it makes a difference to the victim’s families or the crime rate. In fact, this is the only argument that stands up in support of the death penalty, as murder rates have been shown to have no correlation to whether or not a state has capital crimes, and victim responses to the practice have differed too widely to properly collate. The idealised justice behind capital punishment is that the perpetrator should get what they deserve. This echoes back to the highly controversial execution of Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams in 2005. Williams was convicted in 1979 of four murders committed in the course of robberies, and was sentenced to death. During his years on death row, Williams became a strong anti-gang and anti-violence advocate, authoring several books in the process, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times. As the date of his execution loomed, an appeal for clemency was rejected by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, citing among other reasons a doubt of whether his post-conviction reformation was genuine or not.

The thought of executing someone who had supposedly reformed and was helping to end gang warfare all across California was an uneasy one for many capital punishment doubters. In the years surrounding Williams’ death, the United States Supreme Court had only just put an end to the execution of mentally retarded prisoners (Atkins v. Virginia in 2002) and those who committed their crime when under the age of 18 (Roper v. Simmons in 2005), which led to further discussion of the humaneness of the death penalty. Despite these qualms, Williams was executed and capital punishment stands in California today. It is the justice of the death sentence that appeals to Californians, and most Americans as a whole. Redemption and rehabilitation are not a sought outcome of sentencing someone to death. When the sentence is issued, their lives and rights are forfeit, and for most in California this appears to be enough. It is a scarlet letter painted on their breast as they spend the rest of their lives on a death row where the leading cause of death is natural causes.

And so, the challenge facing Americans ahead when it comes to capital punishment is how to bring about abolition as quickly as possible without ruffling too many feathers. As long as the death penalty is seen as a reasonable punishment, people will continue to support it as such. Elected officials find it hard to intervene in the death penalty as it remains so continually popular among the electorate, and it is next to impossible, as California has shown, for an abolition proposition to pass a popular vote. This will be one of the many interesting divisive social issues to look out for in American politics in the coming years, and may be a marker for the future direction of the national animus.

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