The SAFE California Act to replace the death penalty with life without parole sentences qualified Monday morning for California’s November ballot, according to Jeanne Woodford, the former San Quentin warden who has become a staunch supporter of ending executions in the state.
Woodford, who began serving as a corrections officer in 1978 — the same year California’s current death penalty legislation took effect — noted that California houses 20% of the nation’s death row prisoners and that 98% will die of natural causes or suicide.
“The SAFE Act will hold death row prisoners accountable, making them work in prison and pay restitution to the families of their victims,” Woodford said during a teleconference to announce the successful signature-gathering effort. “95% of death row inmates will probably go to the general population. Most are quite old and are no longer extremely dangerous. General population is a much less expensive way to handle them.”
SAFE Act proponents needed more than a half-million signatures to qualify for the ballot and had 5,000 volunteers gathering signatures. “We turned in far in excess of the number needed,” said Woodford, who served from 1999 to 2004 as the warden at San Quentin, where California’s executions are carried out.
If successful, the SAFE California effort would make California the sixth state to move away from the death penalty, following New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, and now Connecticut, according to Connecticut Representative Gary Holder-Winfield, who was instrumental in his state’s successful effort.Connecticut’s Governor Danell Malloy is expected to sign the law ending that state’s death penalty shortly.
“Murder victims’ family members led the effort to drop the death penalty in our state,” Holder-Whitfield said. “Murder victims’ family members say the death penalty makes them relive the horrible experience time and again.”
Cutting Costs, Improving Conviction Rates
“There’s no good evidence that the death penalty deters,” said John Van de Kamp, former Los Angeles District Attorney (1975-81) and California Attorney General (1983-91). “In fact, those states that do not have the death penalty have lower crime rates than those that do.”
According to Van de Kamp, in the 14 states without the death penalty, murder rates are 4.6 per 100,000 residents. For states with the death penalty, the rate climbs to 4.9.
“With SAFE California, $100 million over four years will go to local law enforcement, allowing them to improve forensic science and add staffing for murder and sex offense cases,” said Van de Kamp. Currently, 46% of homicides are unsolved in California and 56% of rapes, rates these extra funds could reduce, Van de Kamp believes.
California currently spends $184 million each year supporting its death penalty laws, even though just 13 inmates have been executed in the 30 years that the law has been in place, at a cost of $4 billion overall. The special San Quentin death row facility is an expensive way to house prisoners, but most of the extra expense comes from the complex trials that are required in death penalty cases and the mandatory appeals processes that typically take 20 years to exhaust in California — double what other death penalty states take.
“In a normal felony case, the proceedings will typically take 6, 7, or 8 months,” said Gil Garcetti, a former Los Angeles District Attorney (1992-2000) who also participated on the call. “With death penalty cases, you’re looking a twice that time.”
“Life without parole cases and death penalty cases are quite different,” Garcetti said. “Life without parole cases are traditional felony cases, with much simpler implementation.”
The savings could start almost immediately, as private attorneys who are hired by the Attorney General’s office to handle death penalty appeals would simply no longer be needed, saving $10 million in the first year the Act takes place and then $30 million the subsequent years, according to the panel of experts. Proponents estimate that the SAFE California Act will save the state $1 billion over the next five years.
Mend It, Not End It?
Another approach to reducing death penalty costs in California would be to shorten the appeals process, bringing California’s 20-year average closer to the 10 years other states take.
“I don’t think this country is ready to get rid of death penalty appeals. We just don’t want to make mistakes,” said Van de Kamp. “We would have to provide lawyers right away. We’d have to add another $100 million annually to speed up the process.”
Like many of the experts on the call, Gil Garcetti once supported the death penalty as his district attorney’s office pursued death penalty convictions. He explained his change of heart this way.
“I’ve been out of office for 12 years. In that time, my conclusion was that the law was totally ineffective and the terribly expensive,” he said. “I am also upset that so many death row inmates have proven to be innocent around the country thanks to DNA evidence.”
“Then there’s the inherent unfairness, as the death penalty could be influenced by which district the trial takes place,” he continued. “I also thought of the family and friends of the victims. At least changing the death penalty to life without parole will give the families and friends of the victims finality.”
“I decided to go public with my opposition to the death penalty when I found out that SAFE CA would put nearly $100 million aside for investigation of murder and rape cases,” he concluded. “When you look at the $184 million we would save each year, wouldn’t that money be better used to keep firefighters and teachers on the job?”
Shortly after the announcement, SAFE California campaign manager Natasha Minsker announced a campaign fund drive to convince California voters to support the proposition.