Pine Box or Ballot Box

Examining the California SAFE Act

By: Donald Young

This is our time to abolish capital punishment in California via the ballot box. If we allow this killing machine to resuscitate, we can expect executions of the more than 725 death row prisoners at a rate that will send shock waves throughout Texas.

Which side are we on? We cannot stand in the middle of the road this time. Abolish capital punishment in California or support government sponsored premeditated murder of death-row prisoners. We have over 14 people with fully exhausted appeals. The sole protection that stands between them and a pine box . . . is our vote.

We said “I AM TROY DAVIS.”  Many of us said that we were Stanley “Tookie” Williams,  Cameron Todd Willingham was another innocent person on death row; the Texas criminal justice system executed him in our name.  If we had abolished capital punishment, all three of these men would still be alive, able to prove their innocence to the world.  No one enjoys a prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), but it definitely keeps Mumia Abu-Jamal speaking truth to power. 

 Before being distracted debating how cruel LWOP is, let us complete the urgent business of abolishing capital punishment with our votes.  Death penalty proponents have revived their rhetorical corporate media fueled propaganda campaign. 

 Californians, putative abolitionists and death penalty opponents:  Keeping death row intact when given the option to abolish capital punishment is nothing more than subterfuge – covertly supporting what we claim to loath and despise.  Take out the fear and face the facts:  most life and lengthy prison sentences end with the prisoner dying in prison. 

 As it stands, prisoners convicted of murder – innocent or guilty - face capital punishment or LWOP.  The SAFE California Act will convert all 725 death sentences to LWOP, making LWOP the harshest punishment for convicted murderers.  The right to appeal convictions to the state and federal courts will still exist, with the same constitutional guarantees afforded LWOP prisoners.  And after all the appellate issues are exhausted they do not kill the appellant.

 While many disagree with certain aspects of the SAFE California Act–for example, $30 million a year for three years given to municipal police and prosecutors, coupled with the SAFE California Act’s florid pro-prosecution language – if this road takes capital punishment off the table, we must travel.  The United States has executed over 1,290 prisoners since 1977.

 The future belongs to us and step by step we will seize power.  After winning this highly contentious battle we will join resources to abolish all forms of permanent imprisonment.  All prisoners should have the right to be released if they are not a threat to society. 

 Since 1978 capital punishment has left California with a fatally flawed system.  Over $4 billion was wasted, 13 executions and 3 exonerations.  This is our once in a lifetime opportunity.  Let us choose the ballot box – or the pine box will choose us.

 I look forward to your contact and communications.

Donald Ray Young is on death row in California. You can write to Donald at:

San Quentin State Prison

San Quentin, CA  94974


In November, the people of California will be voting on a ballot measure that could repeal the death penalty there. Since it won a place on the ballot, the SAFE Act has been a topic of discussion and important debate among criminal justice reform activists.

  The measure has the potential to take over 700 people off death row in one of the largest death penalty states - yet the "tough on crime" proposals at the heart of the SAFE Act are leading a growing number of activists to turn against it.

0ver the next several months the Campaign to End the Death Penalty will be providing a forum about this debate on our website through a new blog titled "Examining the Califonia SAFE Act."

This blog project aims to collect various news articles, editorials and especially prisoners writing about this initiative.  We would love folks to send our way any articles or writings that you think will add to this discussion.  Contact us at