Why I Support Proposition 34, the SAFE Initiative

Examining the California SAFE Act


By: Joan Leslie Taylor

When I first read the Proposition 34 initiative, I was thrown into turmoil and spent weeks in agony.  I have dear friends on death row.  Of course, I want to end the death penalty, but how could I vote for life without the possibility of parole (LWOP)?  I know people already incarcerated under LWOP.  It’s a terrible sentence.  And why all that vindictive language in Proposition 34? 

 Eventually I calmed down enough to see that Proposition 34 wasn’t written to convince me.  There are voters who will never vote to end the death penalty, no matter how much it costs, but there are also voters who are not passionately for or against the death penalty.  The writers of Proposition 34 know that we must attract enough of these middle of the road, uninvolved voters to pass the initiative.  Many voters might well vote for Proposition 34, not because they care about the people on death row or what’s right, but because it saves tax dollars.  Voters have been so brainwashed by sensationalized news reports of crimes and the “monsters” on death row that they believe we must lock up every criminal for ever.  They’ve heard the myths that men in prison get free room and board, great medical care, and color televisions, and they are angry.  They want to make criminals suffer.  They live in fear that murderers are going to be dumped into their neighborhoods and harm their families.  Voters are starting to understand that the death penalty costs a bundle and few are executed.  LWOP looks good to these voters and they will make the difference between winning and losing this chance to end the death penalty.  The allocation of funds in Proposition 34 for police departments is well-worth the price to diminish police opposition to the Proposition and end the death penalty.  Proposition 34 was made to sound as draconian as possible to gain the votes of those mostly concerned with their safety and their taxes and not much concerned with the morality of executions.

 Looking closely at Proposition 34 and looking deeply at my beliefs and desires made me realize that I had to get off my high horse of morality and set aside my naïve desire to turn all prisons into places of education, rehabilitation, and loving kindness right away.  This is politics!  Politics is how laws get changed, and politics is the art of negotiation, coalitions, fundraising, and reality.  Back in the Sixties during the Civil Rights struggles I had to learn that morality, attitudes, and beliefs cannot be legislated. That’s still true.

 The writers of Proposition 34 focused on what is possible this year – ending the death penalty – and they included provisions to attract enough voters to reach a clear majority and neutralize likely opposition. 

 If Proposition 34 passes in November, it will end the death penalty in California and immediately save the lives of the twenty or so men whose appeals have run their course. It will remove the threat of execution hanging over the heads of over 700 men and women currently on death row.  And no new inmates will be arriving on the row.  District attorneys and police interrogators will no longer be able to threaten the vulnerable and frightened into confessing to a crime to avoid the death penalty.  No more executions, no more death penalty. This would be a very good thing. 

 What a blow to the death penalty everywhere if we can the end the death penalty in California.  Instantly the number of inmates on death rows nationwide would decrease by a very substantial number, and other states would be encouraged to end this vile practice that turns us all into murderers.  How could I not vote for Proposition 34?

What do we have to lose?  Most of those on death row would lose free legal representation through their appeals.  But is this really such a terrible loss?  Let’s think this through.  Appeal attorneys work hard for their death row clients.  They explore every possible appealable element, of which there are many in every case.  Everyone on death row can honestly claim ineffectiveness of trial counsel, and many, if not most, had overly aggressive district attorneys and police, and none had sufficient work on mitigating factors.  Attorneys give their clients the hope of having sentences reduced and maybe even getting out of prison.  But hope is not always a good thing.  Hope based on false probabilities means bitter disappointment later on.  For an attorney, it’s a win if they can get a death sentence changed to Life Without Parole (LWOP), so even though they fight to overturn both guilt and penalty phase convictions, their efforts are focused on saving their clients’ lives.  That means LWOP.  Even those who get whole new trials all too frequently end up either back on death row or with LWOP.  Cases where men should not have been given a death sentence end up with LWOP at best.  An inmate’s chances have little to do with the merits of his habeas appeal or the skills and dedication of the attorney, and more to do with which judges hear the case, and the political climate at the time.  Along the appeals journey a state or federal judge may throw out a death sentence, but the 9th circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court can and often does reinstate it.  The chances of winning even LWOP get narrower and narrower.  No justice for death row.  It’s politics all the way.  The facts of a case become irrelevant when the politics of the death penalty set the stage. 

 How many people have actually left death row and walked out the gate?  Very, very few.  Those successes give hope to everyone on the row, just as rock stars give hope to every kid with a guitar.  It’s possible, but is it probable?  Not really. Almost without exception, those who are lucky enough to leave death row alive are saved by LWOP.   We could ensure that every inmate on death row gets that outcome right now. 

 Thanks to skilled and dedicated attorneys and judges with integrity, executions have been slowed.  The lethal injection challenge has kept men alive and bought us six years, but that case will soon be settled.  There may be more delays and more tinkering, but that’s all.  Within the year there will be executions and men will die unless Proposition 34 passes.  The opposition will report that the death penalty is now “working.”

 What we have now is a chance to save everyone on death row and all those yet to come.  Let’s do it!  If this proposition is defeated, we are not likely to see another initiative any time soon.  The pro-death penalty forces will trumpet the news from the rooftops that voters want the death penalty.  It will be very difficult to raise funds to get another initiative on the ballot.  And frankly, if we got an initiative we really liked on the ballot, it would never pass in the current political climate, and that climate is worsening as the economic downturn affects more and more people, and the right wing extremists make more inroads.  Proposition 34 should be viewed as our one real chance. 

We must do one important thing this year: end the death penalty!  This will be an important victory in and of itself, but it will also have far reaching effects on the criminal justice system.  LWOP will be the worst sentence available, which will ratchet down all sentences.  The Other Death Penalty, the only organization specifically formed to end LWOP, has come out in support of Proposition 34.  These men know more about LWOP than any voter, and they understand that we must first end the death penalty.  We cannot end LWOP right now!  LWOP is what will allow us to end the death penalty, but what we do this year will lead to ending LWOP in the future.

Thus far no one in the death penalty abolition movement has paid much attention to the 4000 men and women with LWOP in California.  No one has been fighting for their post conviction appeals.  Without having to defend every single inmate on death row through the automatic appeals, we could more easily support the various Innocence Projects, which would bring post conviction help to ALL inmates with LWOP and other excessive sentences.  Think how much more could be done without having to worry about the death penalty.  Yes, we'd have to figure out how to fund a greater innocence effort, but it could be done.

Prison conditions for LWOP inmates need to improve.  The whole sentencing structure needs to change.  Ending the death penalty will clear the way for more reforms.  There is much work to do.  Let us begin. 

I support Proposition 34, the SAFE initiative, and I urge everyone who cares about inmates, who cares about justice and human rights, to join me in supporting Proposition   34.  We have already lost too many men to execution.  It’s time to draw the line and stop the killing.  Vote YES on Proposition 34.

 


 

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 randi@nodeathpenalty.org or lily@nodeathpenalty.org