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Maryland is about to abolish the death penalty

Maryland lawmakers today approved what California voters narrowly rejected a few months ago: abolition of the death penalty.

The Maryland House of Delegates voted 82-56 to replace that state’s death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole; the state Senate had approved the bill 27-20 last week. Gov. Martin O’Malley had introduced the repeal legislation and so there’s no question that he’ll sign it into law now; in doing so, he’ll make Maryland the sixth state in as many years to do away with capital punishment.

“State after state is deciding that the death penalty is simply not worth the risks and costs to retain,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said in a news release. “Maryland is the sixth state in recent years to choose this course, but it won’t be the last.”

California voters in November rejected Proposition 34, which like Maryland’s law would’ve replaced the death penalty with life without parole; 48 percent voted for it, 52 percent against.

The defeat came despite the elevated turnout brought by a presidential election and after supporters had reframed the issue in part as one of fiscal wisdom, arguing the tight-budgeted state can’t afford the tremendous cost of putting and keeping so many people on death row.

California now has 732 condemned inmates, but has executed only 13 since reinstating its death penalty in 1978; the last execution was in 2006. Prop. 34 would’ve commuted all currently condemned inmates’ sentences to life without parole.

Maryland has carried out five executions since 1976, but has only five inmates now on its death row. The new law won’t directly affect those five, leaving it up to O’Malley to decide whether their sentences should be commuted separately.

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Groups sue Bowen over inmate voting rights

Three groups sued California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and San Francisco’s elections director Wednesday, asking the court to ensure that more than 85,000 people sent to county jails instead of state prisons under the recent “realignment” can vote.

All of Us or None, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and the League of Women Voters of California contend that low-level, non-violent offenders should be able to cast ballots this year and beyond.

The state’s First District Court of Appeal ruled in 2006 that people serving county jail terms as a condition of felony probation are entitled to vote under California law. Bowen in December issued a memo to county clerks and registrars advising them that no felon sentenced to county jail instead of state prison under realignment is eligible to vote. The state Justice Department backed Bowen up in a letter issued Monday.

This new lawsuit, also filed to the First District appellate court, argues people sent to county jail under realignment are neither “imprisoned in state prison” or “on parole as a result of the conviction of a felony” – the statuses under which the state constitution would deprive them of voting rights, under the 2006 case.

Excluding Californians with criminal convictions from voting is at odds with the California Constitution and contradicts a central purpose of realignment, which is to stop the state’s expensive revolving door of incarceration by rehabilitating and reintegrating individuals back into society, the lawsuit argues. The plaintiffs seek a court order letting such people register for November’s election before the Oct. 22 deadline.

Bowen’s spokeswoman said the office won’t comment on pending litigation.

The three organizations are represented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the Social Justice Law Project, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, A New Way of Life Reentry Project, and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.

“California’s courts have a proud tradition of protecting our fundamental right to vote,” ACLU Managing Attorney Jory Steele said in a news release. “Here, this is particularly important because disenfranchisement has such a disproportionate impact on people of color.”

Willie “Sundiata” Tate, 67, San Leandro was behind bars from when he was 16 until age 30; now he’s a volunteer community organizer with All of Us or None, and believes that its especially important for society’s less powerful to have access to the voting booth.

“If all of us were to get out and be active, it would and could make a difference, from the community level to a society level,” he said. “As a formerly incarcerated person, it’s very dear to me that everyone who has been locked down has the chance to help put in place policies that can have a positive impact on lives of people who are incarcerated, and on people who are vulnerable to incarceration.

People risked and lost their lives so African-Americans could have the right to vote, he noted.

“Especially on issues that are local and important in the state that I live in, I want that vote,” Tate said. “And I want that vote for everyone, not just for myself.”

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Bill on media access to prisoners advances

The Assembly voted 47-22 today to pass a Bay Area lawmaker’s bill that would lift the ban on media interviews with specific inmates in California’s prisons.

Since the ban on pre-arranged inmate interviews went into effect in 1996, bill author Tom Ammiano noted, eight versions of this bill have been vetoed by three governors.

“Independent media access to prison inmates is a critical part of keeping our prisons transparent and accountable while providing information to the public,” Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said in a news release.

“Despite the thousands of prisoners who participated in a state-wide hunger strike last year over conditions in the prisons, it was near impossible to get unbiased information about what was happening due to these restrictions,” he said. “Inmates kept in secure housing units (SHU) have no visitation or telephone privileges and information about their solitary confinement punishments are largely unknown to the public even though a disproportionate number of inmate suicides occur in the SHU.”

Ammiano said he’s carrying AB 1270 to increase transparency and public accountability from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which has a $9.2 billion budget.

Sumayyah Waheed, campaign director for the Books Not Bars program of the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said in Ammiano’s release that prisons tend to be out-of-sight, out-of-mind for anyone not directly impacted by them. “That’s a recipe for rampant abuse, which is too often the story inside prisons. As taxpayers, we have a right to know what goes on behind prison walls. This bill offers a much-needed step forward in making prisons accountable to the public.”

Full disclosure: The California Newspaper Publishers Association (of which my employer is a member) and the Pacific Media Workers Guild (of which I’m a member) among this bill’s supporters, as is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and an array of civil-rights groups. There’s no registered opposition to it, according to an Assembly committee analysis from last week.

Still, three Democrats – Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata; Alyson Huber, D-El Dorado Hills; and Norma Torres, D-Pomona – crossed the aisle to vote with most Republicans against the bill. The only Republican who voted for it was Steve Knight, R-Palmdale. And 11 members – four Democrats and seven Republicans – didn’t vote.

The bill now goes to the state Senate.

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Death penalty abolition measure cleared by AG

The state Attorney General’s office has cleared for petition circulation a proposed ballot initiative that would abolish California’s death penalty, replacing it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

Here’s the AG’s title and summary, released yesterday:

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL. INITIATIVE STATUTE. Repeals death penalty as maximum punishment for persons found guilty of murder and replaces it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Applies retroactively to persons already sentenced to death. Requires persons found guilty of murder to work while in prison, with their wages to be applied to any victim restitution fines or orders against them. Creates $100 million fund to be distributed to law enforcement agencies to help solve more homicide and rape cases. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: Net savings to the state and counties that could amount to the high tens of millions of dollars annually on a statewide basis due to the elimination of the death penalty. One-time state costs totaling $100 million from 2012-13 through 2015-16 to provide funding to local law enforcement agencies. (11-0035.)

The proponents have until March 19 to gather the valid signatures of at least 504,760 registered California voters in order to put this initiative on the November 2012 ballot.

This is the measure that popped up after state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, withdrew her similar bill in August, saying she couldn’t find the legislative votes to move it forward.

The California Taxpayers for Justice committee backing this “Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement (SAFE) for California Act” will roll out its petition signature gathering drive next week with press conferences Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego featuring “law enforcement leaders, murder victim family members, exonerated persons and notable campaign supporters.”

Among those speaking Tuesday in San Francisco will be 8th District Supervisor Scott Weiner; Jeanne Woodford, former warden of San Quentin State Prison and now Death Penalty Focus’s executive director and this initiative’s proponent; Maurice Caldwell, released in March after serving 21 years in prison for a crime he did not commit; Deldelp Medina, whose aunt was murdered by her first cousin; and Lorrain Taylor of Oakland, founder of 1,000 Mothers to Prevent Violence and mother of twins Albade and Obadiah who were gunned down in 2000 at age 22 in a still-unsolved case.

And speakers in San Jose on Thursday will include SAFE California statewide campaign manager Natasha Minsker, who directs the ACLU of Northern California’s death penalty policy; retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell; John Starbuck, both the grandson and grandfather of murder victims, in separate cases; retired police officer Steven Fajardo; and Mary-Kay Raftery of San Jose, mother of a murdered law enforcement officer.

Hancock’s bill had been opposed by groups including Crime Victims United of California and the California District Attorneys Association; they and others almost certainly will oppose this proposed initiative, too.

A Field Poll released late last month found 68 percent of voters favor retaining the death penalty for serious crimes, 27 percent favor abolishing it, and 5 percent have no opinion. However, the poll also found more voters now prefer life in prison without the possibility of parole over the death penalty for someone convicted of first degree murder by a 48 percent to 40 percent margin. The poll had a 3.2-percentage-point margin of error.

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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.

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Hearing tomorrow on California prison SHUs

The Assembly Public Safety Committee will hold an informational hearing tomorrow on the state prison system’s “Secure Housing Units,” which were targeted by inmates’ recent hunger strike at Pelican Bay State Prison and other sites around California.

The hearing at the State Capitol, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., will be streamed live on the Assembly’s website.

After an introduction by chairman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francsico, the committee will hear from SHU inmates and their supporters: Earl Fears, a former Corcoran SHU inmate; Glenda Rojas, a family member of an inmate at Pelican Bay; and the Rev. William McGarvey from the Bay Area Religious Campaign Against Torture.

After that come the legal and research experts: prisoner-rights lawyer Charles Carbone; American Friends Service Committee Regional Director Laura Magnani; Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and All of Us or None; Dr. Terry Kupers of the Wright Institute; and University of California, Santa Cruz psychology professor Craig Haney.

Then the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will have its say for about half an hour, with testimony from Undersecretary of Operations Scott Kernan and Chief of Correctional Safety Anthony Chaus. There’ll be some time for public comment at the end.

UPDATE @ 1:51 P.M.: “This is an important opportunity for the California Legislature and the people of California to hold the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation accountable for upholding the basic needs and human rights of prisoners,” Carol Strickman, a lawyer at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, said in a news release. “The hunger strike opened the eyes of many people in California and around the world to the reprehensible conditions that exist within the SHU and now it’s time to start making some lasting changes.”