Ex-Governors Pete Wilson, George Deukmejian and Gray Davis in October 2012 (photo: KMVT)
It is a rare cause that brings together former California governors from both parties to unite in spirit and action to enhance the lives of their fellow citizens.
Ex-Governors Gray Davis (D), George Deukmejian (R) and Pete Wilson (R) held a news conference Thursday to announce their support for a new initiative—they would like to see prisoners on Death Row executed quicker. “Old age should not be the leading cause of death on Death Row,” Wilson said.
The governors were kicking off the campaign to gather 807,615 signatures for a ballot initiative (pdf) preliminarily called the “Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2014.”
The reform part would limit the amount of time a Death Row prisoner could pursue appeals, shift the initial appeals process from the state Supreme Court to Superior Courts, remove the threat of sanctions against doctors who administer lethal injections and fast track changes to the execution procedure. Theoretically, an inmate could be executed in five years, instead of the 12-15 years it typically takes now.
The savings, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office and the Department of Finance, could potentially run into the tens of millions of dollars annually for the corrections system. Dead prisoners cost a lot less than live ones, especially those live ones housed in special facilities while lawyers and the state argue for decades about whether they should be executed.
The savings would be pro-rated for the prisoners currently sentenced to death. More than 900 individuals have received a death sentence in California since the current death penalty law was enacted in 1978. As of last month, 14 had been executed, 91 had died prior to being executed and 746 were in state prison with death sentences. The rest have had their sentences reduced by the courts.
No inmate has been executed in California since 2006, while debate rages. Voters rejected Proposition 34, an initiative to ban the death penalty, by a 52%-48% margin in 2012. Los Angeles Times reporter Maura Dolan characterized that margin as “narrow,” while the governors, in their statement, said “Californians overwhelmingly reaffirmed their support for the death penalty.”
The new law would also cost the state tens of millions of dollars fighting off lawsuits trying to slow and block its implementation.
The new initiative comes just days after Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, suspended the use of the death penalty. Instead of pardons or commutations, Inslee said, he will issue reprieves that delay execution until further notice.
Inslee’s pronouncement inspired Scott Bland at the National Journal to ask, “Is the Death Penalty Dying.” He sees a trend. Eight states have reversed course on the death penalty in the past decade as public support declines. Six states have ended capital punishment since 2004.
But 32 states still have a death penalty and three of the 18 that don’t still have legacy inmates on Death Row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The shift against the death penalty has been from a high of 80% in 1934 to 60% last October, according to Gallup, still a solid majority. In between, support fluctuated wildly. A majority of Americans were against the death penalty in 1966 (47%-42%). Ten years later it was 72%-20% the other way.
Capital punishment has a checkered history in California. The California Supreme Court ruled the state’s death penalty law was unconstitutional in 1972, which led to the commutation of 102 death sentences. That saved the lives of Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. Voters almost immediately passed Proposition 17, reinstating the death penalty. But in 1976, following U.S. Supreme Court decisions that gutted and then restricted state death penalty laws, the state high court killed California’s. Subsequent state statutes reinstated the death penalty, but debate still continues over various aspects of the law, including lethal injection.