Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Changes are coming at this blog. For the first time in a long time, I've taken a demanding job that will thrust me into the thick of a serious electoral fight. While I doubt that the blog will go silent (I never lack for running commentary on our politics and society, not to mention photos), there may be days when nothing new comes along. Or perhaps other days when content here is a few lines and a link pointing of some piece of writing that interested me.
I've taken the position of field director for the SAFE California campaign. We seek to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. That is, if a criminal act so harms individuals and/or California society that our hunger for justice makes us long to kill the perpetrator, instead we'll ensure that person gets locked up for the rest of his/her life, no exceptions and no fooling.
The initiative measure will be on the 2012 ballot. We put in death sentences by popular vote in 1978, so we can only end them in the same way.
It's not as if a law enforcement environment including the death penalty has done the state any good. According to U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Arthur L. Alarcon, the near bankrupt state of California has spent $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978 -- and executed all of 13 people. Meanwhile, 46% of murders and 56% of rapes go unsolved. Maybe if we were putting more resources into solving crimes than into failing to execute people we'd be safer? We have hundreds of people already locked up on "death row" who are absorbing our money while our cops seem unable to investigate violent "cold cases."
And, of course, the risk that we might execute an innocent person never goes away. There's entirely too much evidence that Texas recently put to death Cameron Todd Willingham for setting a fire that killed his children. But the convincing "expert" testimony leading to his conviction had no scientific basis; he was almost certainly innocent. Mistakes can happen: in March 2011, a man named Franky Carrillo was released from prison in California after 20 years of incarceration for a murder he did not commit.There's no correcting a "mistake" when the death penalty is carried out.
When I tell people that I am working on a California campaign to end legal executions, they usually ask something like: "but don't California voters believe in the death penalty?" And if the questions is asked like that, many people agree. But we like a lot of other things as well: public safety, low taxes, good use of state resources, a legal system that delivers prompt and reliable justice for all. A majority of the electorate is well on the way to understanding that the death penalty actually impedes these other goods that they value. The campaign's job is to help people solidify that emerging understanding; when they do, a majority are willing to go with a system that ensures that really dangerous criminals never come back on the streets.
I won't be writing about the campaign much, though I am sure that I'll occasionally share vignettes from the process. The death penalty is a deeply emotional subject; the thought of executing another human being forces most of us to ponder what we believe and value. Occasionally I may have experiences to share, but mostly campaigns are to be lived (and survived) first and analyzed only later.