Conventional wisdom holds that support for the death penalty is a prerequisite for attaining or maintaining public office. But voters are wising up to empty "tough on crime" rhetoric in these times of fiscal crisis. Notably, Jerry Brown (Governor) and Kamala Harris (Attorney General) both defeated "law and order" opponents despite their personal opposition to the death penalty in the 2010 election.
Harris beat L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley whose main line of attack was her refusal to pursue the death penalty for the killer of a San Francisco policeman. Harris argued skillfully that the death penalty has not made us safer and that the money spent every year on the death penalty could be far more productively used to put more cops on the street and to fund programs which aim to stop recidivism
Brown is Governor again despite practically becoming an anti-death penalty icon. In 1960, he famously pleaded with his father, Governor Pat Brown, to spare condemned inmate Caryl Chessman's life. (Chessman was executed after Pat Brown initially issued a 60-day reprieve.) In 1977, then-Governor Jerry Brown followed his "conscience" and vetoed the death penalty bill passed by the legislature. His veto was overridden, the bill became law, and a more expansive death penalty -- the Briggs Amendment -- passed by referendum the following year. Brown appointed Rose Bird as Chief Justice, but she and two colleagues were voted off the bench in 1986, in a vitriolic campaign highlighting her reversals of death sentences.
Proposition 34, the SAFE California Act would replace our multi-billion dollar death penalty with life without parole. It would also require restitution to victim families and would set aside $100 million for local law enforcement for the investigation of unsolved rape and murder cases. It makes perfect sense as a matter of public policy as well as politics, and is an obvious fit for Brown and Harris, who both understand better than anyone that California's death penalty system is time-consuming, unreliable, and unworkable, serving no useful purpose while draining judicial resources and diverting much-needed funds from truly effective public safety programs.
Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Chief Justice of the State of California, has concluded that the state's capital punishment system is "not effective" and requires "structural changes" that the State cannot afford. Her predecessor, Ron George, who was Chief Justice for 15 years, came to the same conclusion, describing California's death penalty scheme as "dysfunctional."
The non-partisan California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice concluded after its extensive review, death sentences are unlikely ever to be carried out because of a process "plagued with excessive delay" in the appointment of postconviction counsel and a "severe backlog" in the state Supreme Court's review of death judgments. According to the Commission's 2008 Report, the lapse of time from sentence of death to execution constitutes the longest delay of any death penalty state. An oft-cited study undertaken by Arthur Alarcon, long-time judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, and law professor Paula Mitchell, concluded that since 1978, "California taxpayers have spent roughly $4 billion to fund a dysfunctional death penalty system that has carried out no more than 13 executions." As noted in a recent article, "the study projected that by 2030, death-penalty expenditure will balloon to $9 billion for death-row housing, health care, legal appeals and the actual executions." with a death-row population, now 724 inmates, growing to more than 1,000.
But with the best, perhaps only chance to make history and end California's death penalty, with an opportunity to help create an enduring legacy that is in accord with their deeply-held belief systems, Jerry Brown and Kamala Harris, our two highest profile and most powerful political leaders, remain on the sidelines. Brown merely stated he is glad the measure is on the ballot while declining to say how he will vote. Harris has refused to take a position.
It is not too late for Jerry Brown and Kamala Harris to join the growing chorus of voices -- former prison officials, prosecutors, judges, conservative politicians, family of murder victims, exonerated former inmates -- and explain to voters how irrevocably broken our death penalty is and how Proposition 34 would save California hundreds of millions of dollars while making us safer.