The Myth of California’s Death Penalty

Maybe it’s just me, but I have this thing about myths. I like to know the difference between reality and, well, not-reality. I spend a lot of time on, I avoid Fox News, my grandfather was even one of those guys who went on an expedition looking for Noah’s Ark (seriously).

So I’m pleased to say that the myth of California’s death penalty is widely being exposed, as more and more people realize that a functional and efficient death penalty system belongs firmly in the Not-Reality Column.

Death sentences in California are at an all-time low and the Assembly is now considering a bill that would allow voters to replace the death penalty – meaning that the myth is being exposed from prosecutors’ offices to jury deliberation rooms and all the way to the statehouse.

According to a new report by the ACLU of Northern California, aptly titled “California’s Death Penalty is Dead,” the first six months of 2011 saw only three new death sentences in the entire state, the lowest since the death penalty was reinstated 1978. By comparison, this time last year California had thirteen new death sentences, and that wasn’t out of the ordinary. If the trend continues, by year’s end California may even lose its grim distinction as the nation’s death sentencing leader.

Meanwhile, Sen. Loni Hancock’s bill to replace the death penalty, SB 490, would give voters a chance to end the myth once and for all by replacing the death penalty with a maximum punishment of life without the possibility of parole plus work and restitution, saving $1 billion over five years. The bill was approved by the Assembly Public Safety Committee last week and is making its way to the floor. If passed, voters will be given the choice in the November 2012 election. Urge your legislators to support SB 490 here.

Of course, this sudden drop in death sentences and the momentum to replace the death penalty with a real public safety solution didn’t just crop up out of nowhere, they’re the result of the death penalty’s myths being exposed.  Like the myth that executions are cheaper than life sentences; reality: a new study by a federal judge and law school professor showed that the death penalty costs California taxpayers $184 million per year more than life without parole, and each execution costs $308 million. Prosecutors and juries who can recognize reality are winning out.

Then there’s the claim that the death penalty gives “closure” to victims’ families. File that under Not-Reality. Reality: the death penalty is the opposite of swift and certain justice. Out of more than 900 men and women sentenced to die in California only 13 have ever been executed, and victims’ family members are dragged through decades of appeals and hearings while they wait for an execution that rarely comes.  

Another myth has been passed around quite a bit in the discussion of the bill to put the death penalty to the voters: that Californians want to keep our dysfunctional death penalty.  One oft-repeated poll was even cited in the bill’s committee hearing showing 70 percent support for the death penalty in the abstract, but that same poll also showed that when given a choice, voters actually prefer life without the possibility of parole over the death penalty – a result that’s been replicated in other polls.

The reality is that a fair, functional, efficient death penalty is attractive to many voters, but is now recognized as an unattainable myth. When people learn how much the death penalty costs, how long it takes, how bad it is for victims’ families and law enforcement and the budget, they opt for real-world alternatives. A poll as recent as April 2011 showed 63 percent of likely voters want the governor to convert death sentences to life without parole as a budget solution. Public support for California’s sham of a death penalty belongs firmly in the Not-Reality Column.

It’s time the law caught up with reality and California cut the myth of the death penalty once and for all. California should pass SB 490 and let the voters decide whether they can think of a better way to spend a billion dollars.