Guest Commentary: Death Penalty No Longer Driving Issue With Voters

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san-quentin.jpgby Natasha Minsker –

When a hot button cools off with voters, it is worth a second look, especially after elected officials took office in the New Year.

Take the recent nail-biter contest for attorney general between San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris and Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.

Harris’ opposition to capital punishment was supposed to be a loser at the ballot box. Many forecast that her refusal to seek the death penalty as a DA — even in high-profile cases like the murder of a San Francisco police officer — would cost her the office of state’s top cop.

Her argument that life without possibility of parole is a better and more cost-effective punishment was expected to be a hard sell across the state. So much so that the Republican State Leadership Committee, a Virginia-based group dedicated to swinging key elections in the GOP’s favor, bankrolled a $1.1 million run for an ad solely devoted to attacking Harris on her opposition to executions.

But voters chose Harris, and her numbers were especially good in Los Angeles — a place that handed down more death sentences in 2009 than the entire state of Texas. Cooley should have had home-turf advantage. His aggressive push for death sentences was expected to doom Harris and turn out loyal voters. Yet Harris won Los Angeles County by a commanding 14 percentage-point margin.

Jerry Brown also faced sharp criticism on the death penalty on the campaign trail. Meg Whitman ran an ad called “Cops’ Choice” in an effort to burnish her tough-on-crime image and expose voters to Brown’s lifelong opposition to the death penalty.

Whitman even went so far as to announce in the last days of her campaign that she would treat the death penalty as a litmus test when considering all judicial nominees. But the play fell flat with voters; Brown was easily voted into office.

Perhaps the most dramatic free fall on this issue in California happened last June when voters rejected former Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pachecho in favor of Judge Paul Zellerbach. Pacheco referred to his opponent as “Judge Marshmallow” for being “soft on crime,” held rallies in favor of capital punishment, and frequently touted plans to “speed up” the death penalty and his hard line approach to prosecutions.

In the end, Riverside voters preferred Zellerbach’s broader approach to public safety and his promises to efficiently use public funds in a time of dwindling dollars.

It’s not just Californians who are turning a deaf ear to death penalty election rhetoric. Election results from around the country confirm polling by Lake Research Partners that show many voters support candidates who support alternatives to the death penalty, and most voters simply don’t care.

Voters in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Kansas, and Illinois all elected governors who publicly support limiting or replacing the death penalty. Voters consistently hold other issues, such as the economy and jobs, as much higher priorities.

Economic woes may be the main reason that the death penalty issue has failed to ignite passions like in the old days. Across the nation, voters are questioning the high price tag of a system riddled with flaws such as the risks of executing the innocent. Last year, executions dropped again, by 12 percent from the year before, and death sentences remained at historic lows.

The nation and the state continue to move away from the death penalty even if political operatives and pundits have not. Whitman, Cooley and Pacheco learned the hard way that California voters are skeptical of the “tough-on-crime” rhetoric of the past.

Voters have real reason to disbelieve the hype: For every 100 people sentenced to death in this state, only one has been executed. In the rare cases where the inmate is executed, it is 25 years or more after sentencing. The financial cost to the state is estimated at $1 billion over the next five years.

The human cost paid by victims’ families is nearly incalculable. Legal turmoil drags on for decades in the appeals process, clemency and parole hearings, often bringing media superstardom for the killer.

With this year’s election, the people of California have made their preference known: Capital punishment is low on their list of law enforcement priorities.

Voters want cost-effective public safety, not political posturing. Officeholders would do well to listen to them by supporting the swifter and less-costly alternative of life without parole, making the inmate work and pay restitution to victims’ families.

Natasha Minsker is the director of the ACLU of Northern California’s Death Penalty Policy program, this article first appeared in the Sacramento Bee.

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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22 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: Death Penalty No Longer Driving Issue With Voters”

  1. E Roberts Musser

    NM: “Voters in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Kansas, and Illinois all elected governors who publicly support limiting or replacing the death penalty.”

    All of these states except Kansas (which up until 2009 had a Democratic governor) are Democratic…

    NM: “Economic woes may be the main reason that the death penalty issue has failed to ignite passions like in the old days. Across the nation, voters are questioning the high price tag of a system riddled with flaws such as the risks of executing the innocent….Voters have real reason to disbelieve the hype: For every 100 people sentenced to death in this state, only one has been executed. In the rare cases where the inmate is executed, it is 25 years or more after sentencing. The financial cost to the state is estimated at $1 billion over the next five years. The human cost paid by victims’ families is nearly incalculable. Legal turmoil drags on for decades in the appeals process, clemency and parole hearings, often bringing media superstardom for the killer.”

    This pretty much sums up the problems w the death penalty:
    1) The justice system is imperfect, and it has been shown that it is very likely innocent people are being put to death – hence the moratorium on the death penalty in the state of Illinois;
    2) In many states that have the death penalty, death sentences are being interminably delayed at a high cost to the taxpayer;
    3) Interminable delays of the death penalty prevent closure for families of murdered victims;
    4) Speeding up executions may result in more innocent people being put to death.

    However, studies are inconclusive as to whether it is cheaper to incarcerate a prisoner for life versus imposing the death penalty, depending on the state in question. The data and methodologies are just not there yet to draw any conclusions…

    However, I think taxpayers would prefer that if a murderer is sentenced to life in prison w/o parole rather than being given the death penalty, that there be 1) no chance of escape; 2) some attempt to make the prisoner work off his debt to society and pay restitution to the victims/state…

  2. Mind_hunter53

    [quote]…that there be 1) no chance of escape; 2) some attempt to make the prisoner work off his debt to society and pay restitution to the victims/state… [/quote]

    There is no way to eliminate all chances of escape although they are minimal given today’s level four prison designs. Murderers doing life have escaped in California, and in other states. Taxpayers should remember that life without parole inmates are at very high risk of harming others in their environment. They are not confined all day in cages — they roam about the prison yards unless their are lock-downs. They occasionally attack staff and very often attack each other savagely. The prospect of making them work off their debt to society would be met with great laughter by guys doing life without. Take a tour of Pelican Bay sometime …

  3. E Roberts Musser

    mh53: “There is no way to eliminate all chances of escape although they are minimal given today’s level four prison designs. Murderers doing life have escaped in California, and in other states. Taxpayers should remember that life without parole inmates are at very high risk of harming others in their environment. They are not confined all day in cages — they roam about the prison yards unless their are lock-downs. They occasionally attack staff and very often attack each other savagely. The prospect of making them work off their debt to society would be met with great laughter by guys doing life without. Take a tour of Pelican Bay sometime …”

    I don’t think anyone escaped from Alcatraz, no? There are ways to insure no escape (but at what cost?). As for prisoners being expected to work off their debt to society, I know this has worked in some prisons in the South, where they are expected to grow their own vegetables/produce.

    From scientificamerican.com: “While there is no nationwide program administering prison agriculture programs, various individual prisons across the country are embracing the notion of getting inmates involved in on-site food production and agricultural research. According to Howard Clinebill, a Ph.D. who has written extensively about environmental psychology, prison gardens offer people looking to turn their lives around a place to reconnect with their natural rhythms, get healthy exercise in the fresh air, work cooperatively with others and care for the Earth in a healing manner.

    Perhaps the best known prison garden project in the U.S. is at the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno, California, where inmates have been working steadily since the mid-1980s to clear away weeds and rubble from some eight acres “inside the fence” and replace them with fresh-grown vegetables—some of which make their way into prison meals while others are donated to needy food banks, housing projects and senior centers. According to program coordinator Catherine Sneed, who pioneered the project, participating inmates learn not only practical skills but also report that they are better able to communicate with one another and resolve disputes amicably.”

    From forbes.com: “Bell is one of nearly 6,000 inmates in the U.S. serving time while working for a private enterprise inside prison walls. This is part of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, sponsored by the National Corrections Industry Association, a trade group that contracts with the government. More than 100 companies participate in the PIE program, established in 1979, and the number of working prisoners has more than doubled in the last decade…

    The prisons can make out well, too. In most states, working prisoners must give a percentage of their wages to prison operators. Other beneficiaries include victims’ restitution funds and inmates’ children; anything left over goes into prisoners’ pockets. Bell, for example, pays between $120 and $150 per month to help her parents raise her 11-year-old son. Some companies, like Actronix, even put prisoners in their company 401(k) plans.

    Before setting up a partnership, companies must demonstrate that prisoners are not taking jobs away from law-abiding citizens (though proving that is a pretty subjective exercise). “We’ve turned down several millions of dollars worth of opportunities so as not to displace people,” says Rob Wilgore, director of Oregon’s PIE program.”

  4. Mind_hunter53

    Thank you for your comments and interesting article(s). Interestingly, in California, the agricultural work projects and many other constructive work activities were shut down due to private enterprise and union concerns regarding unfair competition etc. To wit, the complaints focused upon prison industries having access to very low paid labor. Supplying prisons with food and supplies of all kinds is VERY big business.

  5. Alphonso

    I see an opportunity-

    Many (if not most) help desk type jobs have been moved offshore to countries with lower labor rates. Move some of those jobs into prisons – a captive low cost workforce. The computer training would be better than the agricultural type activities.

  6. Mind_hunter53

    [quote]Move some of those jobs into prisons – a captive low cost workforce. The computer training would be better than the agricultural type activities.
    [/quote]

    I like the idea — as long as we can monitor those naughty boys for the mischievous scams and gang communications they will regularly originate.

  7. E Roberts Musser

    Alphonso: “Many (if not most) help desk type jobs have been moved offshore to countries with lower labor rates. Move some of those jobs into prisons – a captive low cost workforce. The computer training would be better than the agricultural type activities.”

    Would be too much of a temptation for perpetrating scams via computer.

    mh53: ” To wit, the complaints focused upon prison industries having access to very low paid labor. Supplying prisons with food and supplies of all kinds is VERY big business.”

    If prisoners grow food for themselves, or do work around the prison as upkeep, that would not be competing w anyone for low paid labor; would help defray the costs of the prison operations; and keep the prisoners themselves out of trouble and develops a good work ethic. I see it as only a win-win, if the prison itself has the will to implement such a program, which I suspect is harder to facilitate than just warehousing prisoners…

  8. David M. Greenwald

    I think that’s one of those ideas that sounds good just like boot camp and scared straight until you recognize the practical considerations. Yeah you might save money on food, but you spend more on other security measures. You really want to give some of these prison gang members and death row inmates hoes?

    You need to start by looking at where the costs are going to, and my guess is that food is not the biggest factor in costs.

    Food accounts for $1,475 of the $47,000 in annual costs according the [urlhttp://www.lao.ca.gov/laoapp/laomenus/sections/crim_justice/6_cj_inmatecost.aspx?catid=3]LAO[/url].

    Big costs:

    Security $19.7
    Health Care $12.4
    Operations including facilities $7.21
    Admin $3.5

    The biggest problem is that we only spend $1.6 on rehabilitation programs including education, training and substance abuse. If you want to change something start there.

  9. Mind_hunter53

    The outside vendors, and their lobbyists, will bitterly oppose prison operated operations which impact their businesses.
    [quote]
    The biggest problem is that we only spend $1.6 on rehabilitation programs including education, training and substance abuse. If you want to change something start there.
    [/quote]

    Many people consider providing life-term and life without parole prisoners these type of programs a waste of resources.

  10. David M. Greenwald

    “Many people consider providing life-term and life without parole prisoners these type of programs a waste of resources.”

    Perhaps, but the vast majority of people in prison are not on life sentences. Given that we are looking at a recidivism rate of 70%, we ought to be focusing more scrutiny on this point.

  11. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “I think that’s one of those ideas that sounds good just like boot camp and scared straight until you recognize the practical considerations. Yeah you might save money on food, but you spend more on other security measures. You really want to give some of these prison gang members and death row inmates hoes?”

    I watched a special on television about a prison down South (sorry, don’t remember the name of the prison), in which prisoners grew their own vegetables to eat. The prison was very isolated from other communities – there was virtually no place to run. Guards stood outside watching prisoners instead of inside – no extra cost. The prisoners actually enjoyed having something useful to do, learned something useful, developed a work ethic they never had. It decreased disruptive behavior in the prison. If I remember rightly, these were hard core criminals (some sentenced to armed robbery and murder). The warden was committed to the program, and to making it work – which is obviously a crucial component. I’m all for it…

    dmg: “The biggest problem is that we only spend $1.6 on rehabilitation programs including education, training and substance abuse. If you want to change something start there.”

    The problem is the rehab programs do not have a very good track record of being efficacious… so some would argue they are a waste of precious tax dollars…

  12. David M. Greenwald

    Hard to assess based on your recollection of a prison down South.

    What I would say is that we need to look at why California has a much higher rate of recidivism than the rest of the country, the lack of money for programs is probably a good start.

  13. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “What I would say is that we need to look at why California has a much higher rate of recidivism than the rest of the country, the lack of money for programs is probably a good start.”

    I had to laugh when I read the following, bc it was so in line w my thinking on the subject:

    From Wikipedia:
    Rikers Island The recidivism rate in the New York City jail system is as high as 65%. The jail at Rikers Island, in New York, is making efforts to reduce this statistic by teaching horticulture to its inmates. It is shown that the inmates that go through this type of rehabilitation have significantly lower rates of recidivism.[15]

    [edit] United States NationwideThe recidivism rate for prisoners released from prison within one year is 44.1%; this number rises to 67.5% within three years of being released from prison. Sixty-seven percent of the people who were rearrested were charged with 750,000 new crimes, which include property offenses, drug offenses, public-order offenses, other offences, unknown, and over 100,000 of these crimes were violent crimes. Of the new violent crimes committed, 2,871 were murder and 2,444 were rape.[1] Male prisoners are exposed and subject to sexual and physical violence in prisons today. Each year, as many as 70% of inmates in prisons are assaulted by another inmate. When these events occur, the victim usually suffers emotionally and/or physically. Further, leading the inmate to accept these types of behaviors and value their life and the lives of others less when they are released. These dehumanizing acts combined with the learned violent behavior have much influence in the causes of recidivism.[16]”

    Notice, part of the problem of recidivism may be that prisoners in CA have too much time on their hands to commit rape on each other, instead of working off their energy in a productive way. I also think CA has another problem that other states may not have, and that is hardened criminals that come across the border…

  14. David M. Greenwald

    I agree that there is a problem, not just the violence, but the conditions harden people. It is one of the reasons I think prison for a guy like Michael Artz would serve to ruin his life and is more likely to turn him into a dangerous criminal than prevent him from committing future crimes.

    I disagree on the criminals coming across the border, the number is about 11% or 19,000 of 170,000 in prison.

  15. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “I disagree on the criminals coming across the border, the number is about 11% or 19,000 of 170,000 in prison.”

    According to Investors Business Daily reported in March 2005:

    “The U.S. Justice Department estimated that 270,000 illegal immigrants served jail time nationally in 2003. Of those, 108,000 were in California. Some estimates show illegals now make up half of California’s prison population, creating a massive criminal subculture that strains state budgets and creates a nightmare for local police forces.”

  16. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “My figure is both newer and comes from CDCR and California Department of Finance rather than a 2003 figure from the US Justice Department.”

    What, you think things have drastically changed since 2003? That was a rhetorical question…

  17. wesley506

    [quote]Economic woes may be the main reason that the death penalty issue has failed to ignite passions like in the old days.[/quote]

    Economics is the ONLY reason people are unhappy with the death penalty. The ACLU has failed to make the case to Californians that the death penalty is morally, ethically wrong or unconstitutional, so they have taken the route of making it prohibitively expensive by appealing and re-appealing every trivial detail about the crime and the trial until the inmate eventually dies of old age.

    [quote]Voters want cost-effective public safety, not political posturing. Officeholders would do well to listen to them by supporting the swifter and less-costly alternative of life without parole, making the inmate work and pay restitution to victims’ families.[/quote]

    The recent 10 yr trend in California for those receiving the death sentence does not show that Californians are against the death penalty.
    2001 – 22 sentenced to death
    2002 – 17
    2003 – 20
    2004 – 10
    2005 – 22
    2006 – 16
    2007 – 16
    2008 – 19
    2009 – 29
    2010 – 29

    The typical unskilled job in prison pays $0.13/hour. If you take 75% of their wages or about $0.10 per hour as restitution, the monthly restitution check for a 40 hour workweek would be $16/month. I am not so sure that the parents of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois would look forward to receiving a $8/month check from John Albert Gardner. If the inmate knew he was only going to get $0.03/hour for every hour he worked, they would find a way to make themselves unsuitable for any job. The idea of restitution also assumes that the perpetrator actually feels some degree of remorse for his crimes which is very very rare.

  18. Mind_hunter53

    Fantastic points Wesley506. There is no way life without parole, life term prisoners, or condemned prisoners will work for .03 hourly! Even those that express deep remorse will chuckle at the idea of sending their wages to their victims and netting .03 hourly.

  19. Mind_hunter53

    [quote]Economics is the ONLY reason people are unhappy with the death penalty. The ACLU has failed to make the case to Californians that the death penalty is morally, ethically wrong or unconstitutional, so they have taken the route of making it prohibitively expensive by appealing and re-appealing every trivial detail about the crime and the trial until the inmate eventually dies of old age.
    [/quote]

    Exactly. And, if the law were changed to outlaw the death penalty, the ACLU will appeal and re-appeal all life without parole sentences similarly causing extreme expense.

  20. David M. Greenwald

    The ACLU has been advocating for LWP for too long to credibly shift the debate.

    Moreover, the bigger reason why states are backing off the death penalty is that they are having all sorts of problems with innocent people or potentially innocent people sitting on death row and the other problem of the uneven application of the law. If you read the debate and the literature, cost is a factor, but it’s not the main reason for the moratoriums and commutations.

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