Rejection of Proposition 34 Bucks National Trend
November 7, 2012
California was poised to become the sixth state in five years to abolish the death penalty; instead, today’s vote has left a costly and cruel system in place.
Alba Morales, United States criminal justice researcher

(Los Angeles) – California voters’ failure to abolish the death penalty perpetuates a barbaric practice and places the state out of step with national trends, Human Rights Watch said today. Had it passed on November 6, 2012, Proposition 34, the SAFE (Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for) California Act, would have closed down the nation’s largest death row.

“California was poised to become the sixth state in five years to abolish the death penalty; instead, today’s vote has left a costly and cruel system in place,” said Alba Morales, United States criminal justice researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is now time for others, including the governor and legislature, to put an end to capital punishment in the state.”

The 724 people on California’s death row are more than 20 percent of the death row inmates in the United States. Under the SAFE Act, their death sentences would have been vacated and they would have been resentenced to life without parole. The proposition failed by approximately 5 percentage points.

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all cases. Government-sponsored execution is inherently cruel, and its application has been plagued with prejudice and error. In the US, 141 people have been released from death row after presenting evidence of their innocence, three of them in California. African Americans are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites, and defendants are much more likely to be sentenced to death when the victim is white.

Many of the arguments surrounding the SAFE Act revolved around the costs of the death penalty – California has executed 13 people since 1992 at a cost of approximately $4 billion. The act would have set aside $30 million of the money saved by doing away with the need for costly death penalty appeals and death row housing and devoted those funds to investigating serious unsolved crimes. Almost half of California’s homicides go unsolved, as do a majority of the rapes reported in the state.

Between 2007 and 2011, the US ranked behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq in number of death sentences handed down. There has been a heartening trend away from the death penalty in the last five years, however, Human Rights Watch said. Of the 17 states that have rejected the death penalty, 5 have done so since 2007 – New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, and Connecticut. Nationally, the number of executions has been declining since 2009.

Even the disappointing failure of voters to pass the SAFE Act revealed some reason to hope. Over 800,000 Californians signed the petition to place the initiative on the ballot, and an unprecedented coalition, including district attorneys and corrections officers, endorsed the measure.

Countries around the world have increasingly rejected the death penalty. Of the 193 United Nations member states, 94 have laws abolishing the sentence, while 137 are abolitionist in practice. According to the UN Secretary General, 175 countries were execution-free in 2011. Belarus is the only European country that still applies the death penalty.

“The United States stands nearly alone, alongside some of the most repressive governments in the world, in retaining the death penalty,” Morales said. “Californians have missed an opportunity to make history by rejecting the death penalty in a popular vote, but the strength of the movement that placed this initiative on the ballot suggests that efforts to end this cruel and misguided practice will continue.”