Commentary: Saving money is no argument for ending death penalty

The Sacramento BeeSeptember 10, 2012 


Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton.

SCOTT LORENZO — Sacramento Bee/MCT

If you're going to argue against the death penalty, then argue against the death penalty.

Call it cruel and unusual. Argue that God – and not governments – should decide life and death. Cast doubt on it as a deterrent to violent crime or expand on the words of former President Jimmy Carter.

"Perhaps the strongest argument against the death penalty is extreme bias against the poor, minorities or those with diminished mental capacity," Carter wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in April.

But to argue against the death penalty by stating it's too expensive for California is intellectually dishonest and disrespectful to the victims of the state's most heinous criminals.

Yet that is what proponents of Proposition 34 are doing. The November ballot initiative seeks to repeal California's death penalty law and allow death row inmates to be resentenced to life without parole.

The same people pushing for Proposition 34 – the American Civil Liberties Union, among others – are the ones primarily responsible for California spending too much on death row prisoners in the first place.

Legal delays caused by the ACLU and others are a big reason why California has executed only 13 people since 1978 at a cost of $4 billion.

And yes, those numbers are obscene – just as it's obscene that California has 729 death row inmates.

But Proposition 34 will fail as an argument about money because 68 percent of Californians support the death penalty, according to a 2011 Field Poll.

What gives Proposition 34 proponents hope is that within that 2011 poll, there was increasing support for life without parole over the death penalty – 48 percent to 40 percent. Support for life without parole was even stronger among women, Latinos and African Americans.

Herein lies the fatal flaw of Proposition 34 as a money argument – people choose life without parole over the death penalty for emotional reasons.

Some African Americans and Latinos have long-standing grievances with a legal system that many feel is either stacked against them or can be.

Argue against the death penalty within that context and people listen. People of faith listen to arguments for putting California out of the killing business.

But a money argument? Who in California believes it anymore when ballot initiatives claim big savings being one "yes" vote away?

It's not extremely expensive to house serial killers and child rapists until they die? This is not to mention the horrific stories of people victimized by death row inmates – stories that will be detailed in future columns.

In truth, executions could be sped up if not for the efforts of Proposition 34 proponents.

It would be nice if some of them argued the courage of their convictions before Election Day.

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