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.


Death penalty author to argue for its abolition

An author of California’s death-penalty law as it exists today will testify for its abolition tomorrow, an East Bay lawmaker announced.

Don HellerDon Heller, a former prosecutor who authored the successful Proposition 7 of 1978 to broaden the capital punishment California had just reinstated the previous year, will testify to the Assembly Public Safety Committee in favor of SB 490, state Sen. Loni Hancock’s bill to abolish the state’s death penalty. The bill would convert the sentences of all those now on California’s death row to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Witnesses previously scheduled to testify for the bill include Hancock, D-Berkeley, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee as well as the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Corrections; Judy Kerr, sister of a murder victim and spokeswoman for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; and Death Penalty Focus Executive Director Jeanne Woodford, who as San Quentin State Prison’s warden oversaw four executions before becoming director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Among those scheduled to testify against the bill are Crime Victims United of California lobbyist Dawn Sanders-Koepke and a representative from the California District Attorneys Association.


Victims’ group warned to adopt truthful name

A victim advocacy group’s independent expenditure committee drew a written warning from the state’s campaign finance watchdog this month for failing to adopt a name that reflects its main funding source: the state prison guards’ union.

In an Oct. 5 letter to the treasurer of the Crime Victims United Independent Expenditure Committee, Gary Winuk – chief of the Fair Political Practices Commission’s enforcement division – said the FPPC found that the committee “has not been using the correct name.

“Specifically, the (Fair Political Practices) Act provides that a committee’s failing to use a name that fully discloses the committee’s sponsors is a violation,” Winuk wrote. “In your response to our letter requiring an explanation of why California Correctional Peace Officers Association (‘CCPOA’), which provides 87.5% of the contributions to CVUIE, was not included in CVUIE’s name, you stated in a letter that, while CCPOA provides funding to CVUIE, a nonprofit, Crime Victims United, solely makes the decisions regarding the committee’s expenditures.”

Winuk went on to write that if a committee’s two sponsors can’t be considered part of “an industry or other identifiable group,” then the committee must use both sponsors’ names in its own name.

“Because crime victims and correctional peace officers cannot be accurately characterized by calling both groups ‘crime victims,’ the two sponsors are not part of the same group,” he wrote, and so “the committee must include the full name of both sponsors in the committee’s name.”

This sort of thing would come into play if the committee airs an advertisement attacking or supporting a candidate; the ad would have to carry the committee’s name, but that name is supposed to reflect the bankroll behind it. The CCPOA has an IE committee of its own, and so if it’s paying another committee’s bills, the public is supposed to know that.

Because CVUIE responded quickly to the FPPC’s inquiry with an explanation of why it had chosen the name, the FPPC issued only a warning letter; future failure to comply with the law could bring fines of up to $5,000 per violation, Winuk wrote.

The committee made substantial donations to support Proposition 83 of 2006 – “Jessica’s Law,” which enacted harsher penalties, restrictions and tracking requirements for sex offenders – as well as to other causes in the 2005-06 and 2007-08 campaign cycles, but hasn’t been very active in this 2009-10 cycle.