California Group Introduces Ballot Initiative That Would Abolish Death Penalty, Save State Millions

Taxpayers for Justice, an organization of death penalty opponents, is in the process of introducing and collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would abolish the state’s death penalty, which has crunched the state’s budget while failing to actually carry out executions. The initiative, known as the Safe California Act, would convert existing death row inmates to Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentences and, if approved, will appear on the 2012 ballot.

The initiative is based on studies that have proven California’s existing death penalty law ineffective and overly costly, as the largest and most expensive death row in the country has cost the state $4 billion while only executing 13 inmates since 1978. More death row inmates have died from natural causes than have been executed in California, where the last execution took place six years ago. Converting existing death sentences to LWOP would save the state $184 million each year, according to a study released in June.

Taxpayers for Justice spokesperson James Clark told ThinkProgress that money saved from ending the death penalty could be redirected to local law enforcement efforts to solve murder and rape cases, more than half of which he said remain unsolved:

Everyone agrees the system as it stands is non-functional since no one is being executed, and any attempt to make it functional will put California’s budget further in the hole, so the only solution is to replace the death penalty completely. […] California is wasting billions on just a select few murderers while nearly half of all murders are unsolved — and more than half of all rapes are unsolved. Ending the death penalty and diverting those resources to local law enforcement is a smart and necessary public safety measure.

As ThinkProgress reported in March, California’s most prolific death penalty judge agrees with the coalition. Former Superior Court Judge Donald McCartin, who earned the nickname “the hanging judge” for the numerous death sentences he issued, wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Times calling on the state to abolish the death penalty to help close its $25 billion budget gap.

Earlier this year, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed the construction of a new $356 million death row facility at San Quentin State Prison.

Once the initiative is filed, the coalition will need to collect roughly 750,000 signatures to get it approved and placed on the November 2012 ballot, an effort Clark said he expects will succeed with ease. As for the measure’s success, the group is banking on a combination of recent polling showing Californians growing increasingly opposed to the death penalty and high voter turnout among women and racial minorities, two groups more likely to oppose to the death penalty, due to the presidential election.