Senator to introduce bill to ban death penalty

State Senator Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, plans to introduce a bill next week that would ban the death penalty in the state of California.

If passed by the state Legislature, the bill would place the issue on the November 2012 ballot. If subsequently approved by voters, it would replace the existing death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to Hancock’s spokesperson Larry Levin.

Even if the bill is passed by the Legislature, a majority of voters must approve it before it can become law.
According to a study authored by U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon and Loyola Law School professor Paula Mitchell, California taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment since it was reinstated in 1978.

In addition to high costs, moral considerations supporting the abolishment of the death penalty include the possibility of innocent people being executed, Levin said, citing 13 death row inmates in Illinois who were found to be innocent of the crimes for which they had been convicted.

Elisabeth Semel, director of the Death Penalty Clinic at the Berkeley School of Law, said application of the death penalty has likewise been discriminatory against minorities and undermines impartiality in the justice system.

“There are many problems with its application, particularly how it discriminates against people of color,” Semel said.

“It doesn’t prevent crime at the front end, in terms of stopping crimes from happening, it doesn’t provide for rehabilitation, it doesn’t deter crime, it doesn’t work.”

According to Levin, Hancock is  confident that her bill has a good chance of passing.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that provides information on the death penalty, said keeping the death penalty in place will continue to consume taxpayer money without a significant contribution to safety. In the public eye, Dieter said, the financial cost of maintaining the status quo may convince enough people to vote to remove it altogether.

“I think the public is increasingly aware of the expense of the death penalty, of other programs being cut and also that the death penalty exists only on paper in California,” he said.

“There have been no executions for over five years, and there’s very little chance that the 700 people on death row will be executed.”

Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he supports the abolition of the death penalty.

“My office wrote a council item for July 19, and the City Council will vote on whether or not to support Hancock’s bill,” Worthington said.

Moreover, Worthington pointed to the City Council’s involvement with this issue in the past. On Dec. 8, 2008, the council voted on a resolution to end death sentences, estimating that about $14.3 million had been spent on executions since 2000 in Alameda County alone.

“From an ethical point of view, I don’t believe in killing people, so I’m against the death penalty, but it’s more likely that people will vote for a moratorium on the death penalty based on the drastic economic impacts,” Worthington said.

“I don’t think a majority of the Legislature is going to decide for ethical reasons they don’t believe in killing criminals, but based on the financial reasons, they may decide to abandon it.”