Saturday, November 3, 2012

Don't Drink the Cool-Aid: Yes on 34

As some of you have noticed, I've been on a blogging holiday, but I just have to respond to some of the things that have been circulating recently from progressives opposing Proposition 34, to repeal the death penalty in California.

Proposition 34, dubbed “SAFE California”, or “Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act” is not the death penalty repeal I would have written.  I don’t support the imposition of life without parole for anyone.  I don’t support slavery in prison or anywhere else.  I hate using arguments of cost savings, efficiency and “making these criminals work and pay instead of sitting around in private rooms watching television” to overturn a horrific and immoral policy.  But none of those are legitimate reasons to vote against Prop. 34.

I understand why death row inmates have blasted the initiative, promulgated by Death Penalty Focus and the ACLU.  If the initiative passes, these inmates, who are uniformly low-income and mostly African American or Latino, will lose the right to court-appointed counsel for appeals which have not been filed.  Many of them are old and have been on Death Row for decades.  They will be sent out to maximum security prisons all over the state, far from friends, family and lawyers.  They fear they will be targeted for violence and unable to defend themselves against younger prisoners.

A friend works at San Quentin and she tells me that death row inmates can’t even sit down on their beds because they are covered with legal papers.  They live for their appeals.  It’s a heart-rending image.  But the fact is that there are 700 inmates on death row, and since 1981 only 6 have been released, while 13 have been executed.  So these guys are at least twice as likely to be killed by the state as to be freed if we do not eliminate the death penalty.

Some inmates have painted Prop. 34 as a secret plot by Jeanne Woodford, former warden of San Quentin and now executive director of Death Penalty Focus, to deprive them of their appeals and funnel more money to police.  That is fantasy.  According to law professor Ellen Kreitzberg, “Long-time opponents of the death penalty approached Jeanne Woodford and asked her to consider being a spokes person in support of Prop 34.”  I know for a fact that the ACLU and Death Penalty Focus spent a lot of time doing focus groups and workshops to figure out what they could get broad enough support for to actually have a chance of winning.  And California is not all that is at stake.  We have by far the most people on death row in the country, and if California votes to end it, that will give huge momentum to the abolition movement in other states.

People have argued that Proposition 34, in replacing the death penalty with Life Without Parole, would create a terrible new law that we would never be able to change.  That’s absolutely false.  There’s no law that we can’t change.  In fact, 34 would not create new law.  We already have LWOP in California, we already have work requirements for prisoners and prisoners’ wages are already seized by the state.  That doesn’t mean these things are okay.  We should be working against them.  If we do not have to work to end the death penalty, that would free up a lot of time for a lot of people who care about civil rights to work on eliminating LWOP or abolishing prisons.  About 300 current death row inmates would lose automatic access to court-appointed counsel for their appeals (the remaining petitions have already been filed and would still be heard).  There’s nothing to stop us from starting to raise money to fund those appeals.  For years psychologists and civil libertarians have pointed out that the conditions under which death row inmates live – 23-hour-a-day isolation in tiny cells – is a form of torture.  Now suddenly, people on both sides of the issue are romanticizing these torture cells as “private rooms” that the inmates will lose if death row is eliminated.

We are nowhere close to having the political will in this state to abolish the death penalty and life sentences, with or without parole.  We’ve had the death penalty for 30 years and it hasn’t brought us any closer to prison abolition or sentencing reform.  While I sympathize with the people on death row, we cannot risk the lives of more innocent Californians because of the delusions of 300 people that they’re going to win their appeals and be freed.  That’s like opposing food stamps because everyone’s going to win the lottery.

If passing Proposition 34 is the last thing we do for justice, that will be a travesty.  But not passing it will be an even bigger travesty.  It doesn’t require LWOP for anyone who has not already been sentenced to death.  In fact, fewer people would end up with life sentences if DAs could not use the death penalty to coerce people into pleading guilty and accepting life sentences.

However you look at it, there’s just no upside to keeping the death penalty.  Vote yes on 34.

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