Californians Narrowly Vote to Speed Up Death Penalty Process

Death PenaltyA measure to speed up executions in California was projected to pass Tuesday night, according to the Associated Press.

Proposition 66, which aims to cap death-sentence appeals at five years, stands at 51.1 percent of the vote. While such a slim margin of victory would usually suggest the electorate is divided, a competing measure to end the death penalty altogether was rejected by 53.4 percent of voters (ballots are still being counted, so totals may change).

“California voters not only want to keep the death penalty intact but they want it to work as intended,” said Anne Marie Schubert, Sacramento County district attorney, who called Prop. 66’s lead “insurmountable.”

Prop. 66 speeds up the appeals process by expanding the number of courts and attorneys able to hear and try death penalty appeals to meet a five-year cap on the appeals process that currently takes decades. A court order could be sought when cases drag on.

Stance stands out

In a cycle when voters chose a cornucopia of liberal policies, like implementing a $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes, extending a tax on the highest incomes, legalizing recreational marijuana, placing further restrictions on guns and ammo and upholding a ban on plastic bags, the death penalty position stands out.

In fact, voters at the same time resoundingly approved a measure that would allow (but not guarantee) early parole for thousands of “non-violent” inmates, showing that Californians’ soft spot hardens when it comes to those considered the worst of the worst.

“Californians have long been a bit schizoid when it comes to the death penalty,” said John J. Pitney, Jr., a Roy P. Crocker professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Pitney recalled Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s campaign ad from the 1990 gubernatorial race. Feinstein, who is currently a U.S. senator, but at the time had just finished a second term as mayor of San Francisco, pitched herself as pro-choice, pro-environment and “the only Democrat for governor for the death penalty.”

Good policy?

While some debate the morality of the death penalty, others argue it is an ineffective policy.

According to data provided by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, no one has been executed since 2006. The vast majority of Death Row inmates will die of other causes long before the state kills them (Prop. 66 will presumably speed this process up, although there’s still legal complications with the lethal injection process).

And it’s costly: The state spends $55 million each year on death penalty appeals, for both prosecutors and court-appointed defense attorneys.

Opponents use the inefficiency and cost of the current system as grounds for abolition of the death penalty. But that may have ultimately been their undoing, said Pitney.

“In recent years, opponents of the death penalty have argued that it is too inefficient and costly,” Pitney said. “That argument may have backfired, at least in this state. Instead of abolishing it, voters backed a measure to make it more efficient.”

Prop. 66 Looks to Speed Up Executions on Death Row

Death PenaltyTomorrow, voters will consider not one but two measures involving the death penalty — one speeds up the process while the other would stop it entirely.

If approved, Prop. 62 would repeal the death penalty and commute the condemned sentences to life without parole. On the other hand, Prop. 66 would speed up the process by expanding the number of courts and attorneys able to hear and try death penalty appeals to meet a five-year cap on the appeals process that currently takes decades. (If both measures pass, the highest vote-getter would become law.)

But failure to meet the five-year time frame would not commute the sentence or throw out the appeal, according to the proposed language. So what happens at the five-year mark?

“If the process takes more than five years, victims or their attorneys could request a court order to address the delay,” said Drew Soderborg, managing principal analyst with the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office. “Because it is unknown how often this would happen or how courts would rule on such a requests, it is difficult to know what the effect would be.”

A court order could pump a sense of urgency into whichever party or court is holding up the process — the violation of which could be punishable in some instances.

Is the system broken?

Proponents of both measures agree that the current system is broken. The appeals process takes decades at a tremendous cost to the state ($55 million annually), which has to prosecute as well as defend in many instances.

Because of legal complications with the lethal injection process, the state hasn’t executed anyone since 2006. In fact, only 15 inmates have been executed since 1978, while 100 have died while waiting, according to an LAO analysis of the measure.

Currently, there are around 750 inmates on Death Row. Some supporters of a total repeal of the death penalty argue it’s a cruel and unusual punishment, while others point to exonerations, which, while not entirely common, happen frequently enough to worry critics about executing innocent people. Since 1973, 156 people have been exonerated nationwide, including three in California, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Prop. 66 would reform the system in an entirely different way — by speeding it up. The measure would increase the pool of eligible attorneys qualified to represent condemned inmates by forcing them to do it. Many who are qualified don’t like to represent death penalty appeals because of inadequate state funding and the major time commitment.

The number of courts in which cases could be heard would be increased under Prop. 66 by sending one type of appeal (habeas corpus petitions) back to the initial court to see if any error had been made. As of April, there were 360 Death Row inmates waiting for habeas corpus petitions.

Critics say Prop. 66’s five-year cap is arbitrary. But proponents say it’s enough time in most instances.

“Prop. 66 limits state appeals to 5 years instead of allowing  convicted criminals to file appeal after appeal after appeal,” said Bill Bradley, a spokesman for Prop. 66. “However, the initiative does not impose a rigid deadline that must be met in every case as extraordinary cases may take longer. With that said, five years is generally sufficient to get through state appeals, even in the most complex cases.”

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Competing Death Penalty Measures Revive Emotional Feud

Death PenaltySACRAMENTO – Thirty years ago, California voters did something unprecedented (and not seen since): They bounced Chief Justice Rose Bird from the supreme court. Two other state high-court justices also failed to win reconfirmation to the court, following an intense political battle centering on the justices’ opposition to the death penalty.

It was easy for many people to understand the emotional nature of the issue during mid-1980s. Crime rates had soared by 276 percent over a 20-year period. They had begun to fall again in the late 1980s, but political angst often trails the data. Justice Bird rejected the death penalty in all 64 such cases that came before her and so became a lightning rod for those upset over crime. Crime rates crept up again in the early 1990s, but have been falling precipitously since.

Now, there’s been a recent spike in crime, and a debate over the role some recent incarceration policies have played in that uptick. For instance, some blame Proposition 47, the 2014 voter initiative that reduced some felonies to misdemeanors, and the governor’s realignment policy, which houses some prison inmates in county jails. Others say the data doesn’t back up those claims, and that crime rates ebb and flow for various reasons.

Whatever the case, crime rates remain relatively low – and the crime issue doesn’t come close to generating the emotions it did during the Rose Bird controversy. Nevertheless, voters on Nov. 8 are being asked to revisit the death-penalty issue in two competing initiatives. It’s a crowded ballot, with 17 initiatives overall, which explains in part why these measures have not garnered much attention. But they offer Californians two starkly different choices.

In Proposition 62, voters are being asked whether to repeal the death penalty for those found guilty of murder and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. In Proposition 66, voters are asked whether to streamline the appeals process to make it easier for the state to execute convicted murderers. When initiatives are contradictory, the one that receives the highest votes prevails. An interesting showdown is in the works.

Ironically, Prop. 62 would put an end to executions that rarely happen anyway. The last execution in California took place a decade ago – all executions have been delayed because of legal challenges to the use of lethal injections. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office puts the numbers in perspective: “As of April 2016, of the 930 individuals who received a death sentence since 1978, 15 have been executed, 103 have died prior to being executed, 64 have had their sentences reduced by the courts, and 748 are in state prison with death sentences.”

Those realities actually bolster the case made by the supporters of both initiatives. Backers of Prop. 62 argue that the state’s death penalty is a failed system because so few people are actually executed. The cost per execution, they argue, is $384 million as they languish on costly death rows. Instead of endless delays, they propose doing away with the penalty – something supporters say will provide “real closure” for families of victims. Instead of fighting in courts, convicted murderers will have a permanent sentence and will never be allowed to go free.

Backers of Prop. 66 say the solution to the lack of executions is to speed up the appeals process. “There are nearly 2,000 murders in California annually,” according to supporters’ official ballot argument. “Only about 15 death penalty sentences are imposed. But when these horrible crimes occur, and a jury unanimously recommends death, the appeals should be heard within five years, and the killer executed.” Both initiatives require these inmates to work.

Opponents of Prop. 66 raise concerns that speeding up the appeals process will cause innocents to potentially be executed, whereas supporters argue that their initiative will allow plenty of time to assure that innocent people aren’t executed. This proposition attempts to speed up the process by requiring “that habeas corpus petitions first be heard in the trial courts,” according to the LAO analysis. It also “places time limits on legal challenges to death sentences” and “changes the process for appointing attorneys to represent condemned inmates.”

The San Francisco Chronicle raises concerns about the attorney appointment process in the initiative: “Condemned inmates often must wait years for representation. The measure attempts to compel attorneys to take up capital appeals by excluding them from certain other defense work. This raises two serious concerns: One is the prospect that attorneys less steeped in the fine points of capital appeals — and it is a specialized part of the law — will be representing inmates with lives on the line. The other is the possibility of attorneys enlisted against their free will in these appeals.”

Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson, writing in the San Jose Mercury News, argued that “Defense attorneys refuse to represent death row inmates in order to thwart the process, so it takes an average of five years before a condemned inmate is even assigned an attorney.”

Proposition 62 is more straightforward than Proposition 66. The former ends the death penalty – even for those currently on death row – and replaces it with “life without parole.” The latter includes a series of complex reforms designed to “mend” the current system. For voters, however, the choice will come down less to the specific details and more to their overall outlook. If they want to end the death penalty, they’ll vote yes on 62. If they want to speed up its use, they’ll back 66.

A recent public-opinion poll from Sacramento State’s Institute for Social Research showed Proposition 62 losing 45-37 and Proposition 66 winning 51 to 20. So while the level of contentiousness over the death penalty is far different now than it was in 1986, it seems that public attitudes about it haven’t changed much in 30 years.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He is based in Sacramento. Write to him at [email protected].

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com