WE MUST VOTE YES on PROP 62.
In California, all executions take place in San Quentin prison. In 2010, the administrators there built a new “lethal injection room” for this purpose that has yet to be used. The medical exam table in the center of the room is outfitted with tranquil mint-green cushions and a set of black, heavy-duty straps and cuffs. Gray curtains pull back to reveal eight large windows and the three separate viewing chambers that lie beyond them.
Except for those straps and the abundance of windows, the injection room exhibits the sort of deliberate industrial blandness one sees in any standard-issue doctor’s office.
But no doctor is ever likely to work in it. In 2010, the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA) announced that it will not certify anesthesiologists who participate in executions. Since 1980, the American Medical Association’s (AMA) code of ethics has advised physicians to refrain from such work as well.
On November 8th, the voting public in California has an opportunity to say that like leading national medical associations, it too wants no part in state-sponsored executions.
Proposition 62 aims to repeal the death penalty and make life without parole the maximum punishment for crimes that are now punishable by death. I strongly believe that passing it will make California a safer, more efficiently run state.
A related measure, Proposition 66, seeks to change procedures regarding appeals and petitions with the intent of making death sentences faster and cheaper to actually carry out.
If both propositions pass, the one that receives the most votes will supersede the other.
Death penalty advocates can trace the ethical soundness of their position all the way back to Hammurabi, whose famous code demanded a brutal symmetry between punishment and crime as the necessary condition for justice: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth! (At least if perpetrator and victim shared the same social class.)
And if a punishment is just, how can it not be ethical to enforce it?
Opponents of the death penalty have strong ethical underpinnings as well. However slight, the possibility of a wrongful conviction always exists. Since 1973, the Death Penalty Information Center documents, 156 individuals have been exonerated and released from Death Row. In 2014, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that roughly 1 in every 25 individuals who receive a death sentence is in fact innocent.
Finally, in a 2012 TED Talk, Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), expressed the possibility of error this way: “For every nine people who have been executed, we’ve actually identified one innocent person who’s been exonerated and released from Death Row.”
When an innocent person is wrongly killed, the state and its citizens effectively become murderers. A strong desire to avoid this possibility at all costs shouldn’t be mistaken for a softness on crime. Instead, it is better characterized as a mandate to hold society itself to the highest ethical standard.
Others object to the death penalty not just because of its possibility of wrongful application, but also because of its wholly elective nature. Killings that occur during war or law enforcement may sometimes be elective (and possibly unsanctioned). State-sponsored executions, in contrast, are always elective. They don’t happen in the heat of conflict. They happen, instead, because the state has decided, in deliberate and supremely committed fashion, to exact the severest punishment it can deliver, when other sufficient alternatives exist. A lifetime sentence protects lawful citizens from the convicted offender and subjects him to a harsh existence defined by restriction and confinement. Is it not highly ethical to temper one’s thirst for vengeance, to treat those who deserve it least with a modicum of mercy and forgiveness, to say, even in the face of unimaginable injury and loss, yes, that’s punishment enough?
For me, the ethical arguments that resonate strongest are the ones that oppose the death penalty. If we want a society where prohibitions against murder and other acts of violence are strong and widely held, the state should lead by example. If we want a society that values self-discipline, compassion, and the possibility of redemption, the state should lead by example.
Also, EJI’s Bryan Stevenson notes that we’ve been taught that the question
to ask is “Do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed?”
This is a sensible question, but as Stevenson asserts, there is another
way of framing it that obligates us to think more fully about our own
identities, values, and role in the process. And that is to ask, “Do we deserve to kill?”
Of course, the death penalty and the arguments it inspires don’t only involve ethics, morals, and justice. There are bureaucratic and economic aspects to it as well. All these different aspects commingle in ways that convince me we should take whatever steps we can to abolish the death penalty. For Californians, that means voting for Proposition 62 on November 8th.
Why do I feel so strongly about this?
In 1972, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Georgia v. Furman, found that the inconsistent application of the death penalty effectively functioned as cruel and unusual punishment — prompting a temporary halt to executions throughout the United States.
In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 7, re-affirming the death penalty in the state. But the first execution under this new statute did not take place until 1992, and in the 38 years since Proposition 7 passed, only 13 people have been executed.
According to Loyola University law professor, Paula Mitchell, the state has spent $5 billion “above what it would have cost us” to maintain the death penalty system during that time. That’s because death penalty trials and appeals processes cost significantly more than trials where life without parole is the maximum penalty, and incarcerating inmates on Death Row is far more expensive than housing other prison inmates.
Every year, between 10 to 30 individuals in California receive a death sentence, and that means the overall population of Death Row prisoners is steadily rising — from 646 in January 2006 to around 750 in 2016. Thus, the annual cost of maintaining the system grows steadily too, as the state must house more Death Row inmates and bear the ongoing costs of their appeals and petitions. Currently, it costs around $150 — $200 million a year more than the state would otherwise spend if the death penalty were eliminated.
Are numbers like this evidence of extreme bureaucratic dysfunction? That’s the position proponents of Proposition 66 take. By reforming the appeals and petitioning process, they say, we can execute Death Row inmates in much speedier and less expensive fashion.
In this instance, however, the extraordinary cost associated with the death penalty isn’t the product of bureaucratic dysfunction. Instead, it’s more accurate to see it as evidence of the state’s doomed attempt to establish the moral legitimacy it needs to credibly enforce an extreme sanction.
A despotic regime legitimizes itself through force and coercion. A democratic one does so through due process and equal application of the law. Forcibly taking the life of a citizen is the most severe power the state possesses. In a government founded on principles of restraint and checks and balances, engaging in an action as extreme, intrusive, and unalterable as execution must necessarily incorporate a great deal of caution, deliberation, and dispassion.
Any effort to make the death penalty speedier and less costly — more “efficient” — will inevitably make it less just.
And even with the caution and deliberation we build into the system, by requiring more extensive jury selection, unanimous jury decisions, automatic appeals to the California Supreme Court, and various other measures, the death penalty still manifests in ways that aren’t always equal or just.
While the hundreds of men and women who reside on Death Row have no doubt committed heinous acts, what unites them all, according to many legal experts, is not that they’re the “worst of the worst,” but rather that they received the poorest legal representation. The criminal justice system is distorted by poverty.
Is that truly what we want to punish?
Is that the best way we can spend the $150 to $200 million a year it costs to maintain the death penalty system in California?
Death Row inmates are almost twice as expensive to house each year as other inmates. Death penalty trials are much costlier than trials where execution is not a potential punishment, and consume more time from judges, public defenders, and other legal personnel.
In abolishing the death penalty, we’d have more money and more resources to apply to prosecuting other crimes. We would completely eliminate the possibility of executing an innocent person unjustly. We would make our overall system of punishment fairer by making it impossible for poor representation, racial biases, and other instances of unequally applied justice result in the state-sponsored deaths of some convicted individuals but not others. We would incorporate ideals of mercy and compassion at the highest levels of our justice system.
Ending the death penalty is the right decision. It will help our justice system run more efficiently and make us safer. It’s well within our power to pursue this ethical, rational, more just path. To do otherwise — even if we believe capital punishment is itself ethical — lets us off the hook far too easily.
We must vote “YES” on Proposition 62.