This November, Californians will have the opportunity to end or amend two draconian elements of our criminal justice system. We support both initiatives.
Last week, Secretary of State Debra Bowen announced that a proposal to end the death penalty in California had qualified for the November ballot. There are at least 720 inmates currently waiting to be executed, making California the state with the largest number of people slated for death.
Despite the enormity of their crimes, executing them will do nothing to deter would-be murders, cost a fortune in legal fees and appeals and possibly end the lives of the wrongly convicted with an irreversible punishment.
This is hardly news. All over the country, state leaders are rethinking their attitudes toward the death penalty. The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal center that specializes in reviewing criminal convictions, has proven that at least 17 people condemned to death were wrongly convicted. Last year, the state of Illinois abolished the death penalty. On April 25, Connecticut Gov. Dennel Malloy followed suit, ending the death penalty forever.
Unlike in other states, California will decide this issue by voter referendum. But we are confident that the voters will see the sense in ending this antiquated practice. When the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in the 1970s, crime was skyrocketing, and the public was terrified. Now that almost three decades have passed, the voters have had time to reflect on whether the policy is just or even useful.
We are confident that they will decide that it is neither, and that the death penalty disproportionately applies to people of color, as well as shaming us before the civilized world.
Similarly, a proposal to reform Proposition 184, commonly referred to as the three strikes law, looks likely to make it onto the ballot. A group of Stanford law professors, in conjunction with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, created the ballot initiative and financed the effort to collect enough signatures to qualify it for the ballot. The effort, which has the formal support of San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, has garnered more than 800,000 signatures, although Bowen has yet to formally schedule it for the election.
Under the current law, people convicted of a third felony, even for something like forging checks, are, with the prompting of a district attorney’s office, subject to being sentenced to life in prison. The proposed initiative would formally restrict that third strike to hardcore, violent criminals. Other repeat felons could be sentenced to life, but that third strike would have to be an egregious, violent offense. The law would also allow for harsher penalties for third offenses that are nonviolent.
Amending the third strike legislation would be a common-sense way to return the law to the original intent of California voters. When voters approved the law in 1994, they were inflamed by the infamous Polly Klaas kidnapping and murder case.
But the reality in our prisons does not correlate with the image of who third-strike criminals are. There are roughly 9,000 people incarcerated in California for 25 years to life for third strikes. A startling number, approximately 3,600, received their third strike for non-serious, nonviolent offenses. The state is paying about $100 million a year to incarcerate these 3,600 for the lesser offenses. That money could well be spent on better things in the state, including education and drug and mental-health facilities.
California devotes way too many resources to an inflexible criminal justice system that often doesn’t actually make the public safer from crime. It is time to make our laws more humane and to use our criminal justice system in a smart, economically sound and intelligent matter.