Thursday, January 03, 2013

What I learned while working to pass Prop. 34

This new year, much as it did last year, the New York Times has published an editorial decrying the death penalty.

A distinguished committee of scholars convened by the National Research Council found that there is no useful evidence to determine if the death penalty deters serious crimes. Many first-rate scholars have tried to prove the theory of deterrence, but that research “is not informative about whether capital punishment increases, decreases, or has no effect on homicide rates,” the committee said.

A host of other respected experts have also concluded that life imprisonment is a far more practical form of retribution, because the death penalty process is too expensive, too time-consuming and unfairly applied.

The punishment is supposed to be reserved for the very worst criminals, but dozens of studies in state after state have shown that the process for deciding who should be sent to death row is arbitrary and discriminatory.

Thanks to the Innocence Project and the overturning of 18 wrongful convictions of death-row inmates with DNA evidence and the exonerations of 16 others charged with capital crimes, the American public is increasingly aware that the system makes terrible mistakes. Since 1973, a total of 142 people have been freed from death row after being exonerated with DNA or other kinds of evidence.

Having spent all last year working to replace California's death penalty with sentences of life in prison without parole, I've learned a great deal about the issue itself, the California electorate, and contemporary state initiative campaigns (this was my first major involvement in a decade.) Yes, we lost -- fairly narrowly -- by 52-48 percent. But I am certain we've changed the conversation and the death penalty is on its way out. A pretended death penalty, seldom or never carried out, serves no one, is a luxury we can't afford, and always risks killing an innocent person. It will go.

Here are some observations in no particular order from my last year's work.
  • For some people, the mere existence of a death penalty amounts to a promise from the government that justice will be done in response to hideous crimes. Many people feel this instinctively; some find their instincts ratified by Biblical proof texts (see for example: Numbers 35: 30-35). They truly feel that justice would be impaired if the state's option to kill killers was ended.
  • Many people, including many of those who cling to the death penalty as an expression of the state's commitment to justice, barely know anything about it. They don't know California has over 720 people on death row, that since 1976 far more condemned prisoners have died of old age than have been executed, that the state hasn't executed anyone since 2006 (and still won't for at at least three more years.) The death penalty is not really on most Californians' minds and many were quite willing to become more informed. That's the 48 percent we won.
  • In order to do my job responsibly, I read through the cases of quite a few condemned California prisoners. Assuming the stories are true, it's fine with me if these guys are locked up for the rest of their lives. Some people are a danger to society.
  • Working with the California Catholic Conference on the signature gathering phase of the campaign, I'm pretty sure I know what institution is doing great work to bring new-citizen Spanish speakers into the electorate. We processed sheet upon sheet of signatures from the Central Valley dioceses from people with Spanish surnames.
  • On the other hand, it is hard in looking at the results to believe that the Catholic Church had much influence on how people voted on the issue. Being a registered Democrat was probably a stronger predictor of a "yes" vote. The Catholic Church seems not to be regarded by many of its members as authoritative on public issues. (In addition to striking out on ending California's death penalty, the institution doesn't seem to have done very well in this cycle at holding back gay marriage or electing Mitt Romney either. Oops.)
  • There are two tiny segments of the population who are literally driven mad by the existence of the death penalty. Most obviously, one set are people who were the loved ones of victims and want the perpetrator dead in the hope that somehow another death will reduce their pain. Since executions hardly ever happen, hanging on to that hope means prolonged suffering. (Some victim family members manage to move on from unbearable grief and a few even bear witness against the impulse to demand "an eye for an eye.") The other people driven mad are those who love people who end up on death row; even condemned killers are sons, brothers, nephews and husbands, strange as it may seem to realize this. Some of these folks with close connections to condemned prisoners were deranged enough to feel they must campaign against replacing death sentences with life without parole because the change would end all hope for them. The death penalty heaps pain on all who come close to it.
  • The California electorate approaches all initiatives with great skepticism. We're sick of voting on long lists of measures we don't understand and we don't trust the people who put them on the ballot. Focus groups with white working class voters showed them to be particularly resistant to making new law by way of the ballot (the only path to ending California's death penalty); they think all campaigns try to jerk their emotions around and put something over on them. Since there is a lot of truth in that, the finding is not surprising, but the impediment this suspicion creates to introducing new ideas is significant.
  • I don't like writing this, but the imperative that progressive campaigns print all their paper propaganda at union printers has become an out-dated form of extortion. Once upon a time, union printers did the only reliable work. We were glad to give jobs to shops where workers were treated right. But the technology of print publication has changed. High-end color copy machines that are standard in well equipped small organizations do just as good work as printers for most purposes -- faster and cheaper. Union printers have become as obsolete as digital design made typesetters a decade ago. Campaigns need to be freed from any obligation to try to salvage a dead technology.
  • We are a state very much divided not only by geography, race, age and ideology, but also by our degree of involvement with and comfort in using digital media. There are voters who can only be reached through Twitter and many others who don't use email. Some people only text, while others can only be reached at their doors. And all their votes are exactly equally valuable in an election. The digital divide(s) are complications even within a campaign. Different people expect different sorts of approaches and none of the silos seem very aware that there are other equally legitimate ways of spreading the message. It's a wonderful, empowering but often frustrating, in-between time in how we construct and maintain our communities and networks.
Working the campaign was a great privilege. We put the case against California's dysfunctional death penalty into the public conversation and I have no doubt that when our message sinks in, it will prevail. It was a lot to ask to get people to change relatively unconsidered instinctive reactions in the short span of one election. But we put Californians well onto the path of believing that we can have safety and justice without the state being in the killing business. We'll get there.

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