Death row abolition bill yanked, bound for ballot

State Sen. Loni Hancock today abandoned her bill that would’ve abolished California’s death penalty, even as a coalition supporting it vowed to take it to voters as a ballot measure instead.

Hancock, D-Berkeley, withdrew SB 490 from consideration by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which was scheduled to vote on the bill today.

“The votes were not there to support reforming California’s expensive and dysfunctional death penalty system,” she said in her news release. “I had hoped we would take the opportunity to save hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used to support our schools and universities, keep police on our streets and fund essential public institutions like the courts.”

SB 490 would have replaced the death penalty with life imprisonment without possibility of parole for those already condemned and for the future. Hancock chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee as well as the Budget subcommittee that oversees the criminal justice system’s funding. The bill had been opposed by groups including Crime Victims United of California and the California District Attorneys Association.

But California Taxpayers for Justice, which had been backing Hancock’s bill, said it’s far from done.

“If the California Legislature will not act to put an end to California’s death penalty debacle, and to keep California families safe, then we will. We will take immediate steps to file a ballot initiative for the November 2012 general election,” the group said in a news release; more information will be released at a news conference Monday morning in Sacramento.

Stefanie Faucher, a member of California Taxpayers for Justice and associate director of San Francisco-based Death Penalty Focus, said she and her colleagues “are confident that Californians are ready to replace the death penalty.”

Well… maybe.

A July 2010 Field Poll found 70 percent of California voters support capital punishment, up from 67 percent in 2006; this support cut across age, gender, racial, religious and party lines. The survey had a 2.8 percentage point margin of error.

However, a subsample of that same poll found that if given a choice, about as many voters would personally opt to impose a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole — 42 percent — as would choose the death penalty — 41 percent — for someone convicted of first-degree murder. This subsample had a 4.6 percentage point margin of error.

The state Senate Public Safety Committee heard testimony Tuesday from 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Senior Judge Arthur Alarcón and Loyola Law Professor Paula Mitchell, co-authors of the study, “Executing the Will of the Voters? – A Roadmap to Mend or End the California Legislature’s Multi-Billion Dollar Death Penalty Debacle,” published in June. The study had concluded California has “the most expensive and least effective death penalty law in the nation.”

And last week, former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp and Loyola Law Professor Laurie Levenson testified in support of the bill to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Van de Kamp chaired the California Commission of the Fair Administration of Justice, which produced a 2008 report that called the state’s death penalty system dysfunctional and a waste of money.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Elwood

    ““If the California Legislature will not act to put an end to California’s death penalty debacle, and to keep California families safe, then we will.”

    Would one of these bleeding heart liberal loonies please explain to me how abolishing the death penalty will “keep California families safe”?

    Seems counter intuitive to me. If the scumbag is dead he is no danger to anyone. If he’s still alive he could be released from prison someday.

    Would anyone care to bet me that if the loonies succeed in repealing the death penalty the next big cause will be to repeal the life without parole sentence?

  • John W

    Re: #1

    “If the scumbag is dead he is no danger to anyone.”

    True, even if it turns out later he didn’t do the crime. But, what the heck, better safe than sorry, right?

    Opposition to the death penalty is not exactly limited to “bleeding heart liberal loonies.” Face it, right or wrong, California will never fast-track the death penalty. Nor will most states, other than Texas and Florida. About the only purpose the death penalty arguably serves is as a bargaining chip in plea deals and, unfortunately, as a drain on resources needed for other priorities.

    Since you posed the question, let’s flip it around. Please explain how the death penalty (a sentence oft-imposed but rarely “executed” in most states) has kept California families (or 3-year-olds in Oakland) safe or safer.

  • Elwood

    @ #2

    “If the scumbag is dead he is no danger to anyone.”

    The problem is too much imposition and not enough execution.

    Scumbags know that in CA at least, their chance of being executed is virtually none.

    More than likely they will travel through the familiar cycle of the CA “justice” system of prison (briefly if not given probation), parole, re-offend, prison again ad infinitum.

    Please answer my question re: repeal of the life without parole sentence. You know of course that the governor can commute the life without parole sentence.

  • John W

    Re: #3 “Please answer my question re: repeal of the life without parole sentence…”

    Kinda hard to answer a hypothetical like this. However, the premise of your question is that we liberal loonies who oppose the death penalty do so out of sympathy for the killers and that our goal is to get them back out on the streets. I’m perfectly willing to throw away the key, make their imprisonment as miserable as possible and offer them free cyanide prescriptions should they choose to “opt out.” I’m equally willing to consider “evicting” some of them from public housing when they get old and sick and start costing serious health care dollars. Also, I don’t see much point in keeping somebody who offs their abusive spouse behind bars forever.

    As for the point about governors commuting sentences, California governors have, if anything, errored on the side of overruling parole board recommendations for parole in non-capital cases and on the side of not commuting sentences. They don’t want to be Willie Hortonized. Arnold’s infamous commutation of the sentence for Nunez’s son was sleezy cronyism but does not exemplify a general inclination toward leniency.