A committee on penal code revisions recommended abolishing California’s death penalty, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Voters have twice rejected ballot propositions to end capital punishment. The new recommendation to end death sentences comes from the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, established by law in 2020.
“California’s system for capital punishment is beyond repair,” reported the committee. “[It is] imposed so arbitrarily — and in such a discriminatory fashion — that it cannot be called rational, fair, or constitutional.”
California voters amended the state Constitution in 1972 to reauthorize capital punishment, which had been ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. The current death penalty law was approved by voters in 1978.
Since then, “California has executed 13 prisoners — none since 2006 — while 156 condemned inmates have died of other causes,” wrote Chronicle staff writer Bob Egelko in the December 2021 article.
Juries in capital cases are disproportionately White, but Blacks are 35 percent of California’s Death Row, more than five times their proportion of the state’s population. All eight people sentenced to death in California in the last two years were Latino, wrote Egelko.
Repeal of capital punishment requires voters to approve a constitutional change.
The committee also recommended changing jury selection procedures to include more minorities and reducing the number of already-condemned prisoners.
The committee also proposed removing the mentally disabled from Death Row and urged Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Rob Bonta and county district attorneys to commute or reduce death sentences to life terms in appropriate cases.
Bonta told the committee he would consider such reductions. When he was an Assembly member, Bonta supported proposed legislation to reduce or repeal capital punishment, according to The Chronicle.
Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón “has agreed to resentence four condemned inmates from the county to life in prison, after finding they were mentally disabled,” wrote Egelko. “Gascón has also withdrawn his office’s 17 pending capital prosecutions and stopped seeking death sentences.”
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin does not seek death sentences either, continuing that office’s policy that began in 1996.
“I believe they should get a second chance,” said Andre Davis, a 49-year-old man incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison, where Death Row is located.
Davis recounted a story of another incarcerated man he met at The Q who had spent years on Death Row wrongfully convicted. The man learned to be a drug abuse treatment counselor in prison, paroled and now works in SQ’s treatment program.
“I believe there’s a lot of people like that on Death Row — people that deserve the opportunity to change, and get tools to help and lead others,” said Davis.
“There’s an honor section for guys on Death Row who’ve already shown they’re ready to program and work together with other people,” said 40-year-old SQ resident Ismael Rosas.
He said, however, that not all condemned inmates would be good candidates for joining the general prison population. “A lot of them did some really messed up stuff, and some of them don’t even want to leave,” said Rosas. “It’s a real challenge.”
Rosas and Davis said they would vote to repeal the death penalty because a life sentence without possibility of parole is punishment enough.
The power to overturn the current death penalty law ultimately rests in the hands of California voters.
Repeal initiatives failed at the ballots in 2012 and 2016.
To succeed, any future attempt would require tremendous fundraising, public support and endorsement from state political leaders, according to The Chronicle.
“Until our statewide leaders call for this (repeal), this death penalty report will just lay collecting dust,” said Assembly Member Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, in the article. Levine has proposed measures to reduce California’s maximum sentence to life in prison without parole.
One important change since previous ballot initiatives to repeal the death penalty is the governor. “Whenever the next vote occurs, Newsom will probably set a precedent with his position,” wrote Egelko.
Newsom endorsed the 2012 and 2016 propositions when he was lieutenant governor. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown, although an opponent of capital punishment, did not, according to The Chronicle.
Gov. Newsom declared a moratorium on executions and filed legal arguments against the death penalty after taking office in 2019.
“California’s death penalty costs taxpayers $150 million a year. The average appeal…takes more than 30 years,” wrote Egelko. “[The state has] the nation’s largest prison system and most populous Death Row…now 697.”