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