This November, California voters have the chance to repeal the death penalty through Proposition 34 and make life imprisonment without the possibility of parole the harshest sentence officials could seek.
Supporters say the measure would save the state more than $100 million, while opponents say they would make the state less safe by removing a major deterrent and shortening prison sentences for repeat-offenders of serious crimes.
"Currently we have a death penalty system that costs us a ton of money and simply doesn’t work," said Steve Smith, a General Consultant for the Yes on Prop 34 campaign. "It's just another broken government program."
Smith said death penalty cases are more complicated and therefore more expensive, and California's 726 death row inmates receive special, expensive treatment once they're behind bars: Condemned inmates don't have cellmates, have constant access to the prison law library and receive lawyers for their lengthy appeal process. California has executed 13 death row inmates since resuming the punishment in 1978.
If Proposition 34 passes, some of the money saved by the state would go to a fund officials could dole out to local law enforcement agencies to help solve cold cases.
Smith said despite the costs and moral objections some have to capital punishment, there's another reason people support Proposition 34.
"I think the most commonly held view is the risk of executing an innocent person," he said. "As long as we have the death penalty there is a risk of executing an innocent person."
However, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said he very strongly opposes this. He is the Northern California co-chair of the No on 34 campaign that opposes the abolition of the death penalty.
“This is not going to save the money as proponents say it would,” Wagstaffe said. “And more importantly, it's going to take away an appropriate punishment for a very small number of evil people.”
Peter DeMarco, a spokesman for the No on Prop 34 campaign, also countered that proponents of the ballot measure are making "misleading and inaccurate" claims.
He contested whether the proposition would actually save the state money, and said there would be no way to ensure the unsolved cases fund would be distributed fairly.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office says Proposition 34 would save the state money, but estimates of $130 million in annual savings "could be higher or lower by tens of millions of dollars."
DeMarco said the state should reform its capital punishment process instead, still allowing the condemned to appeal their cases but not sit on death row for decades.
"To suggest that it costs too much, so we should just abandon it, is, quite frankly, gutless," he said.
He added that the proposition would remove the highest-level deterrent available against violent crime, and pointed out law enforcement organizations—the California Coalition of Law Enforcement Agencies, the California Police Chiefs Association and others—that oppose the ballot measure.
"Those groups all represent thousands of rank and file law enforcement officers who are on the streets every day," DeMarco said. "They will tell you that the difference of having the death penalty be applicable in first degree murder cases does make a difference in whether a crime is committed."
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