Proposition 62 proposes to end the death penalty in California. The death penalty is when the state executes a person for committing a capital crime, like premeditated murder. Instead everyone already sentenced would get life imprisonment without possibility of parole, which is when you get out of jail early for good behavior under supervision. Current California law generally requires that inmates work, and that part of their earnings go toward restitution of the victim, or in the case of homicide, the victim’s family. The bill increases the percentage that may be taken from the inmate’s wages from 50% to 60% to give to the victim’s family. This proposition came about for moral and financial reasons. What is the history of the death penalty, what is the scope of the problem, what are the moral and financial arguments for and against it, and what should we do?
In 1972, 40 states plus the District of Columbia had death penalties. The Supreme Court struck them down because they were arbitrarily and capriciously applied. Thirty five states created new death penalty laws, but in 1976, the Supreme Court struck down the ones that made the death penalty mandatory for any capital crime. But if judges and juries use their discretion, weighing the variables in each individual case, the ruling does allow them to apply the death penalty (Lincoln, 2016). In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of mentally retarded defendants violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of juvenile killers is unconstitutional. On November 6th, 2012, an attempt to repeal death penalty in California failed (CNN, 2016).
Worldwide, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty since 1976, when the US Supreme Court revived it. In 2010, the US ranked fifth in executions behind China, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Nationwide, of 8,124 people sentenced to death between 1977-2013, only 17% were executed, 6% died of other causes, 40% got other dispositions including acquittals, and 37% remain in prison (Lincoln, 2016). In California since 1978, an even lower percentage of convicts who get the death penalty get executed, and an even higher percentage sit solitary in cells waiting to be told if they will live or die. Of 930 individuals who have been convicted, only 15 have been executed, 103 died of other causes, 64 sentences have been reduced, and 748 are in appeals. Of those 748, two fifths have been on death row for more than 20 years. California spends $55 million annually just on the cost of appeals (Padilla, 2016).
Does the death penalty make any sense? Overall, the cost of execution is eight times higher than keeping an inmate in life imprisonment because of the huge costs of a sentencing trial, which is an extra trial required above and beyond the trial that determines guilt vs innocence, appeals, and extra security (Prejean, 1993). Yet even with the high dollar amount, injustices abound. 120 people sentenced to die have been exonerated (USCCB, 2005). The death penalty is applied to a tiny fraction of homicide convictions. The chances of getting the death penalty does not correspond most highly with how bad or heinous the crime. Instead your chances of getting the death penalty for a capital crime are much higher if you’re poor, black, or if you live in a southern state like Texas or Oklahoma (USCCB, 2005; Lincoln, 2016). The quality of court appointed attorneys for the defense can be poor. Federal appeals courts find constitutional errors in the proceedings in 40% of cases reviewed (Prejean, 1993). Finally, the death penalty does not seem to serve as the deterrent to homicide as it was meant to be. There is no difference in capital crime rates in states that have more executions (USCCB, 2005).
So are there any good reasons for the death penalty? One big problem with life imprisonment is the possibility of parole. 71.3% of violent offenders are rearrested within the five years after release from prison (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005), and in 1997, a third of prison admissions were from parole violators (BJS, 1999). The alternative to the death penalty would have to be life imprisonment without possibility of parole to protect the public’s safety.
How about the families of the victims? More and more victims’ families are telling us that the execution of the offender does not give them peace.
“No one in our family ever wanted to see the killer of our brother and his wife put to death. We felt instinctively that vengeance wouldn’t alleviate our grief. We wanted this murderer in prison so he could never hurt another person. But wishing he would suffer and die would only have diminished us and shriveled our own souls. Hatred doesn’t heal. Every time the state kills a person, human society moves in the direction of its lowest, most base urges. We don’t have to make that choice. Our lawmakers have the capacity to help us abolish the death penalty and along with it, the fantasy that it will make the pain go away.”
—Mary Bosco Van Valkenburg for her mother, Antoinette Bosco, sister Margaret Minier, and brothers Frank and Paul Bosco (USCCB, 2005)
So the death penalty doesn’t work in terms of costs to the state, nor as a deterrent to crime. Injustices abound in terms of who gets the dearth penalty, and corruption exists in the granting of pardons (Prejean, 1993). Then there’s the moral question. Should the state, in the name of all of us, ever put someone to death when there is even a small chance of killing an innocent person, when we can protect the public’s safety with the alternative of life imprisonment without parole? Even if the convict is guilty, do we have the right to cut off any chance that he/she may repent and do good in the future? In “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean tells her journey of going through the whole process of appeals and the execution of a man convicted of murder as his spiritual adviser. Two brothers, Pat and Eddie, kill two teenagers in the woods. The older brother, Pat takes the blame though his younger brother, Eddie, did the killing, so Pat gets the death sentence. In the end, Sister Helen leads Pat to apologize to the victim’s family, befriends the father of one of the victims who ultimately heroically accepts the apology, and counsels Eddie, who is in life imprisonment as an accomplice. Even Eddie, laden with guilt over causing the deaths of three people, including his own brother, finds a measure of peace by working hard to give part of his earnings as a token of restitution to the victims’ families. Her description of the execution puts into question if any of us would want to be responsible for yet another death. The miracle is that grace can penetrate even the darkest of situations, like the exchange between Pat and the victim’s father, and how even Eddie improved. I believe that mercy and forgiveness, with life imprisonment without parole to keep the public safe, is a much better alternative than the death penalty.
I urge everyone to vote “yes” on Proposition 62 and “no” on 66.
edited by Joyce Tran
- Alex Padilla, (Nov 8, 2016) “Official Voter Info Guide for CA General Election.”
- CNN library, updated 10/24/16, “Death Penalty Fast Facts”, CNN.com
- Fay, William, Msg. and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dec. 2005, “Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death.” Washington DC, USCCB.org,
- Lincoln, Alan, “Death Throes: Changing How America Thinks About Capital Punishment,”Harvard Magazine, volume 119, no. 2 , Nov-Dec 2016.pp. 56-95
- National Institute of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, nij.gov
- Prejean, Helen, C.S.J. (1993) “Dead Man Walking” New York: Random House.