By gathering far more than the 504,000 signatures needed, supporters of the SAFE California Act, an initiative that would eliminate the death penalty, have gained approval to place the measure on the ballot this fall.
Passage of SAFE, the "Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California" Act, would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole. If the measure passes, no crime committed in the state going forward would be punishable by death, and sentences for the 723 inmates who currently occupy California's death row would transition to life in prison, reducing the total United States death row population by nearly 25%.
Proponents of SAFE argue that mountains of data collected in the three decades since the reinstatement of the death penalty make a clear case against capital punishment. No conclusive evidence exists to show that the death penalty actually deters violent crime, and the costs of maintaining the current system are exorbitant. More than $4 billion has been spent since 1978 to execute 13 prisoners on California's death row. Those who support the ban on the death penalty present a formidable argument on fiscal merit, even without the introduction of moral questions.
Opponents of the SAFE Act believe the state has not only the right, but also the responsibility, to ensure that criminal punishments fit their corresponding crimes. For California's most egregious criminal offenders, they argue, death stands as the only appropriate and fair penalty. Pro-death penalty groups believe quite strongly that justice, not economy, is the crux of the issue.
As with the rest of the nation, hot button social issues like abortion and gay marriage divide Californians.
Citizens stake out their positions on these issues and often find little common ground, particularly in matters of life and death. What most Californians can agree on about capital punishment though is that the existing system is broken.
- For those who support the death penalty as a necessary means of delivering justice to the worst criminal offenders, the unsatisfying fact remains that execution ranks as only the third-leading cause of death for the state's death row inmates, outpaced by both natural causes and suicide.
- For those who oppose the death penalty system because of the disproportionate financial burden it places on the state, $4 billion dollars spent to execute 13 prisoners in 35 years is unacceptable.
- For those who oppose punishment by death on moral grounds, the death penalty is reprehensible in any form and at any cost.
What thirty years and all the statistics in the world can't do though is clear up the moral ambiguity surrounding the death penalty. There are still those who steadfastly believe that criminals who commit unimaginably horrific crimes must pay for those crimes with their lives. There are others who passionately believe that a law allowing the state-sanctioned killing of a citizen, even a grotesquely deranged citizen, tears a gaping hole in the very fabric of the society that it intends to protect. And there are others still who find themselves unsure, those whose conscience allows no definitive answer to bubble to the surface.
In the presence of strong logical arguments against California's death penalty, and in the absence of moral clarity, the interests of Californians may be best served by passing the SAFE Act. If nothing else, this would serve as an acknowledgment of the clear dysfunction of the existing capital punishment system, and as an admission of the failure of the current process to accomplish any of its intended objectives.