Democrats Kill the California Death Penalty Reform Bill in Committee

LoniHancockBack in the 1990s, the death penalty had become a third rail, of sorts, as a highly-charged issue.  The public supported the death penalty overwhelmingly, Michael Dukakis had been ground into dust on the issue, so Democrats would not touch the issue.

Times have changed, but apparently legislative Democrats are still acting like it is 1994.  Never mind that the public has cooled on the issue.  Never mind that a strong majority is concerned about costs of the death penalty.  Never mind that a majority of voters now support changing it to life without parole.  Never mind research by those like Alarcón who show we have spent billions and will spend billions more on a death penalty that has seen but 13 executions since 1978 and none since 2006.  Never mind that all this bill would have done is put the issue before the voters.

And so Senator Loni Hancock has shelved her bill, that would have gone to the voters in 2012, until next session.

SB 490 would replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, close death row and convert death penalty sentences to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

“The votes were not there to support reforming California’s expensive and dysfunctional death penalty system,” Senator Hancock stated.  “I had hoped we would take the opportunity to save hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used to support our schools and universities, keep police on our streets and fund essential public institutions like the courts.”

“Study after study has demonstrated that the cost of maintaining the death penalty when so many basic needs are going unmet has become an expense we can no longer afford,” Senator Hancock continued.

According to a press release from Senator Hancock’s office, her action followed testimony before the Senate Public Safety Committee by The Honorable Arthur L. Alarcón, Senior Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and Loyola of Los Angeles Law Professor Paula M. Mitchell, co-authors of the landmark study, “Executing the Will of the Voters? – A Roadmap to Mend or End the California Legislature’s Multi-Billion Dollar Death Penalty Debacle,” published in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review in June, 2011.  Their study concluded that California has “the most expensive and least effective death penalty law in the nation.”

Ms. Hancock’s legislation was based in part on that study that showed Californians spend $184 million per year on death penalty cases and incarceration.  There are 714 prisoners on death row, and yet the state has only executed 13 since 1978.

On August 17th, former Attorney General John Van de Kamp and Law Professor Laurie Levenson also testified before the Assembly Appropriations Committee in support of SB 490.  Van de Kamp served as the Chairman of the California Commission of the Fair Administration of Justice. Their 2008 report also called the state’s death penalty system dysfunctional and a waste of taxpayer money.

However, while she could not get the nine votes she needed on the Public Safety Committee, a committee that law enforcement has tended to heavily influence despite the 12-5 Democratic advantage, she vowed that the issue would not go away.

“This is going to be a process. This is a tough vote for a lot of people,” Senator Hancock said in a telephone interview. “The issue is not going away. There have been people across the state who are rallying to support it.”

Senator Hancock told the Associated Press that she expects support for her bill to grow as fiscal conditions in the state decline.

Lawmakers will be faced with a difficult choice of spending money on a death penalty system that does not work, as opposed to basic services like police and schools.

“It is something that’s not tough on crime, it’s tough on the taxpayers,” she said. “Many times, important bills take two or three years to get out of the Legislature.”

Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill allowing the death penalty when he was governor in the 1977, a bill that the legislation ultimately voted to override.

The AP reported that he declined to comment directly on SB 490’s failure, however he voiced support for putting “deep, troublesome issues” like capital punishment to a vote of the people, as Hancock’s bill proposes.

“In general, I’ve said as a principle, that when we have deep, troublesome issues that create gridlock in the Legislature, going back to the people could be a way to break the gridlock,” Governor Brown told the Associated Press during a press conference detailing his new jobs plan.

The AP also reported that a coalition of groups calling themselves California Taxpayers For Justice are forming in hopes of gathering signatures to put the issue on the November 2012 ballot and bypassing the legislation altogether.

In a full story on Friday, the LA Times reported, “Sensing opportunity to erode support for capital punishment with the fiscal argument, Taxpayers for Justice conscripted more than 100 law enforcement leaders in their campaign for replacement of death sentences with life without the possibility of parole. While a few counties already have renounced capital prosecutions for ethical or expense reasons, a statewide initiative would need to be passed by voters for the death penalty to be eliminated as an option.”

One of those new enlisted recruits is former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti.

“My frustration is more about the fact that the death penalty does not serve any useful purpose and it’s very expensive,” said Mr. Garcetti told the Times. “Most people understand and appreciate that the death penalty has never proven to be a deterrent. It is simply retribution for family and friends of the murdered individual.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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  1. Alphonso

    Most advanced countries have pasted by us on this issue

    We continue to allign ourselves with human right “leaders” like-

    North Korea
    Saudi Arabia

    Sometimes it is important to look around to see if you are doing the right thing.

  2. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]However, while she could not get the nine votes she needed on the Public Safety Committee, a committee that law enforcement has tended to heavily influence despite the 12-5 Democratic advantage, she vowed that the issue would not go away.[/quote]

    Well at least the Republicans are not getting blamed for this one. There still seems to be a strong “law and order” contingent in this state that won’t let the death penalty “die”. It would be interesting to see what voters think…

  3. Alphonso

    There still seems to be a strong “law and order” contingent in this state that won’t let the death penalty “die”.

    And I wonder what that means – are they interested in law and order or are they more interested in money?
    Being tough on crime (regardless of the aspect) is good for the attorney and prison guard industries. The Education lobby should go after these people because the money saved would likey go to education.

  4. David M. Greenwald

    I can tell you one problem is that strength of the CCPOA/ PORAC lobby in the Public Safety Committee. I was there a few years ago when they wanted to fix a problem with civilian oversight boards for police, and hundreds of uniformed officers lined up to speak and the bill was dead. I’m sure something like that happened here as well.

  5. Rifkin

    There is not one state in the 50 U.S. states where a majority does not favor the death penalty for some crimes.

    I wonder how “advanced” those countries are that have no possible death penalty? Most of them have much worse histories with crimes against humanity. They simply do not trust themselves to handle the death penalty properly.

    Those “advanced” countries are often the same ones — take Spain, France or Germany or pretty much any European country — which lecture the United States on race relations and racism, despite the fact that our record on that issue stacks up much more favorably than any of theirs. You don’t see white American football crowds chanting “ape calls” at African American players in the United States the way you see in Europe to this day ([url][/url]). How advanced!

    Off the topic, but related to crime and punishment … David Greenwald lied in his headline ([url][/url]) which claimed I oppose “due process of law” when it comes to medicating mentally ill inmates:

    [b]”Rifkin Wants Doctors to Have Ability to Force Medicate Patients Without Due Process of Law.”[/b]

    I simply favor a different process than David and the ACLU zealots. They have the wrong-headed notion that allowing people suffering from psychosis to decide on their own whether to take meds or not is in the patients’ best interests. It’s not, of course. They care more about ideology than the health of the patients.* They think lawyers know more about psychiatric care than doctors.

    Fortunately, a judge ruled today to get Lougher back on his meds ([url][/url]), which had been working perfectly, according to his six psychiatrists who were treating him. Sadly, this is what happened when the civil libertarian extremists won their court case in the 9th Circuit (under the claim that Loughner’s antipsycnotic meds were “dangerous”): [quote] Jared L. Loughner, the man accused in the shooting rampage in Tucson, kept himself awake for 50 hours straight after an appeals court stopped his forced medication. He walked in circles until he developed sores and then declined antibiotics to treat an infected foot. Already thin, he stopped eating and shed nine pounds. [/quote] In other words, he went from a man of sound mind under his forced meds to a psychotic in very short order. Good job, 9th Circuit!

    *Greenwald falsely claimed I don’t give a damn about Loughner:

    [i]“… and Mr. Rifkin admits he doesn’t give a damn about the well-being of Mr. Loughner.” [/i]

    I replied: “That is not true, either. I said I would not be sad if he killed himself, because his crimes were so horrific. I feel the same way about all mass murderers. Nonetheless, I believe very strongly that as long as he is in custody and is the ward of our medical facility, he deserves a proper course of treatment which would help him recover his sanity as best as is possible.”

  6. Rifkin

    Here is more from today’s Loughner story: [quote] Judge Larry Burns of Federal District Court described Mr. Loughner’s behavior in explaining his refusal to overrule prison doctors who decided to resume forced medication on July 18. The drugging, he said, “seems entirely appropriate and reasonable to me.”

    The ruling came in a pretrial hearing on Friday that offered insight into Mr. Loughner’s condition at a federal prison in Springfield, Mo., where he is on suicide watch. Mr. Loughner’s lawyers had argued that a court should review whether the forced medication could resume. [/quote] I should note that it was judge Burns who authorized the original forced medication of Mr. Loughner. [quote] Christina Pietz, a psychologist who is treating Mr. Loughner, testified by telephone that he was “less psychotic” than he had been and that she was now more concerned about depression.

    She worried that videotaping her sessions with him — as Mr. Loughner’s lawyers requested — would only exacerbate his ills. She said he turned “almost defeated” and withdrawn when she broached the idea on Wednesday. [/quote] Yet another instance in which lawyers who claim they are doing what is best for their client are apparently harming him. That’s why medical professionals need to be in charge in cases like this, as long as their is a strong concensus among his doctors for a course of treatment. [quote] Judge Burns reaffirmed his earlier ruling to prohibit the videotaping, even after Mr. Loughner’s lawyers agreed to limit their request. He said it would add to Mr. Loughner’s stress and impair the psychological evaluation. [/quote] Thank god Burns is not from the ACLU. [quote] He was forcibly medicated from June 21 to July 1 after prison doctors found that he was a danger to others. The federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth District halted the medications while it considered an appeal of Judge Burns’s decision to allow the drugs. The appeals court has scheduled a hearing in San Francisco on Tuesday.

    The prison decided to resume the forced medications on July 18 after doctors found that Mr. Loughner’s condition had significantly worsened and that he was a danger to himself. [/quote] But the 9th Circuit claimed, falsely, that the real danger was the antipsychotic drugs?!!! [quote] Defense lawyers argued that the prison was violating the district court’s order, but the appeals court refused to step in. [/quote] In other words, all the 9th Circuit decision did was to make matters worse. And Greenwald and his cohorts call that “due process.”

  7. Alphonso

    [b]There is not one state in the 50 U.S. states where a majority does not favor the death penalty for some crimes. [/b]

    Not sure where that stat comes from, but you might add that one third of our states have abolished the death penalty. The number is growing and a key factor is the cost of maintaining death rows.

  8. David M. Greenwald

    It’s an interesting question as to what the majority really wants.

    In California, 70% say they want the death penalty until they are given an option of LWOP and then it changes drastically.

    So this is from a 2010 Field Poll:

    [quote] California voters favor the death penalty by a wide margin, but when given a choice, respondents to a statewide poll said they narrowly prefer a sentence of life in prison without parole over capital punishment.

    The Field Poll survey conducted for The Press-Enterprise and other California media found 70 percent of those polled were in favor of the death penalty. The division between those favoring life in prison without parole was 42 percent, versus 41 percent for capital punishment. Another 13 percent said it would depend on circumstances. [/quote]

    This isn’t an anomaly either.

    This year that number has greatly increased:

    [quote] An April 2011 poll by David Binder Research of likely California voters found 63% favor converting death sentences to permanent imprisonment, and a majority of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans all support cutting the death penalty.[/quote]


    [quote]The myth that Californians want to keep our dysfunctional death penalty is also wrong. One oft-repeated poll shows 70 percent support for the death penalty in the abstract. The same poll also shows that when given a choice, voters actually prefer life without the possibility of parole over the death penalty – a finding echoed in other polls.

    Reality: a fair, functional, efficient death penalty is attractive to many voters, but is now recognized as unattainable; in other words, a myth. When people learn how much the death penalty costs, how long it takes, how bad it is for victims’ families and law enforcement and the budget, they opt for real-world alternatives. An April 2011 poll showed that 63 percent of likely voters want the governor to convert death sentences to life without parole as a budget solution.[/quote]

  9. Rifkin

    [i]”Not sure where that stat comes from …”[/i]

    I have been searching for the transcript. I heard John Zogby say that on the PBS NewsHour maybe 3 months ago. The topic was “the death penalty” and more specifically for the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Malik Hasan. Zogby said 75% of Americans supported the death penalty for terrorists like Hasan. (Zogby said he does not favor the death penalty.) The host asked Zogby if the poll included people from the states where the death penalty has been abolished. He said it did and added that there are no states where a majority opposes the death penalty in all cases, such as with mass murderers or terrorists.

    I will continue to try to find it. I know that RCP links to transcripts of the NewsHour.

  10. Frankly

    This is an interesting graph:


    Seems that public opinion must be swayed my some social changes. Only in 1966 did more oppose than favor it. Maybe the peace sign and Mary Jane has some influence.

    [i]”When people learn how much the death penalty costs, how long it takes, how bad it is for victims’ families and law enforcement and the budget, they opt for real-world alternatives.”[/i]

    So, if provided an alternative of a fast-track death penalty for convicted mass muderers, terrorists and other first-degree murders with certain special circumstances… how might the poll numbers change?

    Also, how might people respond to the question: Would you support the death penalty for someone convicted of first degree murder of one or more of your family members?

    Personally, I have zero tollerance for murder… kind of like some people do for hate crime.

  11. Alphonso

    One more thing to add about the death penalty – the Topete case provides a good example of why the Death Penalty should go. Topete is accused of killing a police officer and I think most people would agree if the death penalty is to be enforced it should be applied to anyone who murders a police officer. However, it is obvious the process of applying the death penalty is all wrong – it has been three years since the shooting and they are just getting around to the trial. If the guy is guilty (and it sure looks that way) then he should have been convicted two years ago rather than dragging out the process in order to ensure a death sentence. All of this nonsense to convince the jury that Topete was sober and he clearly plotted to ambush the officer is a waste of time and money – all in an effort to pile up a case supporting a death sentence. We need to get past the notion of revenge in the interest of speeding up cases like this.

    I have been on the fence on this issue over the years and I must admit I fully supported the disposition of Bin Laden – some people have claimed Obama murdered the guy without due process. However, when it comes to cases in our country a reasonable cost benefit analysis points toward “life without the possibility of release” as the best option.

  12. Mr Obvious

    [quote]I’m sure something like that happened here as well. [/quote]

    I really don’t have much to say on this issue because I figured this would happen. How about even a little investigative journalism on the matter to find out what happened instead of making an unsupported statement about an entire group of people.

    Do we know if there was a poll conducted, research done, or should we just assume it is as you reported, a bunch of police officers showing up to kill the bill.

  13. medwoman


    I think it is important to make a distinction between what governments choose to do in their official capacity as representatives of the people and what a group of hooligans choose to do at a sporting event.

    As regards “not trusting themselves to handle the death penalty properly” I would say that awareness of one’s limitations is a very valuable asset. I also think it is clear that there is no generally held consensus in this country at present that we are able to handle it “properly” if indeed there can be said to be a proper way to decide to end the life of another human.

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