Troubled by the CA SAFE Initiative

Examining the California SAFE Act

By: Christine Thomas

Ending the death penalty is important... but how we end it is also important.

I oppose life without possibility of parole (LWOP)-- a sentence without belief in redemption. In California, we have the ability to sentence each criminal count to a certain number of years, and often can, and do sentence people to beyond their natural life without sentencing them to LWOP. There is no purpose to this sentence.

LWOP carries with it the same inherent problems as the death penalty when it comes to who gets charged and railroaded into and through the system. The SAFE initiative provides no protections so that anyone sentenced to LWOP would receive counsel to help them review an unjust arrest/trial/investigation/conviction. LWOP is a sentence seen as the death penalty by prisoners. Many on the condemned row see this as a fate worse than death.

The second part of this initiative says "prisoners must work and pay restitution." It's been pointed out to me this is the law now - with 55 percent restitution. The problem is, laws can be changed. Once put into law by an initiative, it would have to be undone by an initiative. This would become law for 'lifers' by a death penalty initiative. It would be almost unforeseeable that there would EVER be an initiative that could pass that would undo this horrible law.

In CA we pay prisoners somewhere around 15 to 40 cents per hour. When you take 55% restitution, this becomes a slave wage. [Not to forget that many industries in the CA Prison Industrial Authority compete for union pay scale positions so these are union busting positions.]

One might title this initiative, "End the death penalty and replace it with slavery." Not only would it then pass because we are very vindictive, it would be honest. If this initiative passes, it will provide CA with an ever growing population of working lifers at what is free labor!

For three years, it will fund law enforcement with 100 million dollars to solve crime with the money saved from stopping the funding of the mitigation portion of the death penalty trial (the second chair/investigating and developing the argument for the lesser sentence, etc). For years, we have developed case law in the courts to show that defendants' histories, childhoods, and environmental impacts greatly impact their behavior. Even without the death penalty, keeping this part of the trial funded and arguing to include jury instructions for second degree because of mitigating factors is tremendously important. I could never be in favor of taking from the few dollars spent on defense now . . and giving that money to what is almost an unlimited budget spent on law enforcement and corrections, a recession proof industry. What were they thinking? 

There are currently over 4000 men and women serving a sentence of LWOP in California. When someone leaves the condemned row and is sentenced to LWOP they start with 300+ security points and go to a Level 4 prison. You can only shave off 8 points a year during any year you have no incidents in your record.

Since programming for prisoners not expected to ever leave prison is almost non-existent, it is almost impossible to earn certificates or credits that may help you drop your security points/classification faster. This makes the possibility of ever leaving a Level 4 prison, where violence orchestrated by the practices of CDCR is at its worst (Pelican Bay, Corcoran, New Folsom), next to impossible, especially for the older guys leaving the row.

Under a sentence of LWOP, you know when you leave prison, you will be dead, which by all means is a death sentence. It is not so unusual for a prisoner to admit that once they were found guilty, they preferred being sentenced to death so they could get legal assistance to help review their convictions. With legal review, comes hope of someday leaving prison. 

Once resentenced to LWOP under the SAFE Act, time kicks in on when you would have to file an appeal or habeas petition on the new sentence under the Antiterrorism Effective Death Penalthy Act (AEDPA). If people do not have an attorney, how would prisoners investigate or write their own claims? If they don't file within these time limits, they lose their rights forever to get errors in their cases reviewed or obtain any relief.

And finally, there is nothing in the SAFE Act that has to do with morality. Everyone just keeps talking about the money, I'm just sayin. Is it really okay for people to live in concrete cages for the rest of their lives if they are willing to do the work to find redemption?

Christine Thomas is a social justice activist working for sentencing reform in California including ending capital punishment.  Her husband, Correll Thomas, is housed on San Quentin's Condemned Row.



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 or