Recently, I’ve been flexing the old activist muscles (been too busy with life changes to really do much before) with the SAFE California group that is working to put a question to the voters on dropping the death penalty in favor of life without parole. It’ll save the state as much as $100 million off of an $8 billion deficit, which isn’t going to fix everything but it’s a patch at no cost to anyone. Anyway, I’ve mostly just been asking people I know as well as asking in friendly venues to gather them, and so far it’s been going pretty well. As of last Friday we need about 190,000 signatures to get the question on the ballot, averaging over 50k per week. With a bit less than four weeks left it seems doable, though obviously some signatures are going to be invalid. It’s going to be close is what I’m saying.
I reckon, if we can get it on the ballot, it has a decent chance of coming to pass. I’m not sure which interests would really be threatened by ending capital punishment in the state. Sure, perhaps there’ll be some nutty right-wing billionaire who will bankroll a vicious smear campaign (there always seems to be one of those), but in terms of the stakeholders I don’t see it. The one company that manufactures the chemicals used for lethal injections went bankrupt a while ago, and to the extent that law enforcement considers execution a useful tool (not a universal view), I’m not sure they want to miss out on the part of the initiative that redirects some of the money used on executions to fund cash-strapped police departments (a savvy inclusion on the part of the organizers). If law enforcement signs on to ending the thing when put to the voters, I’d go so far as to say it’s favored. And, certainly, Governor (and former Attorney General) Jerry Brown and current AG Kamala Harris can make a strong argument for why it’s not needed to keep people safe (both oppose capital punishment). Looking at the polling, this really seems like the best chance to drop the practice in the state, and take one step toward humane correctional practices.
Also, on a related note, Jerry Brown really has been doing a pretty good job in office, much better than Schwarzenegger ever did. Arnie can keep his swaggering macho bullshit, it takes real guts to stand up to the prison guard unions in this state. Or to stake his political capital on a tax hike initiative (to forestall even more spending cuts, of course). Arnie was deathly afraid of doing either one back during his days in office, and Ol’ Moonbeam took him to toughness school on both. Pretty impressive, actually.
A Southern Baptist seminary president says that according to the Bible, capital punishment is pro-life. “The death penalty is not about retribution,” Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a podcast Sept. 22. “It is first of all about underlining the importance of every single human life.”
Mohler, who has a Ph.D. in theology, said in Genesis 9, where capital punishment is mandated for murder, “it is precisely because the taking of one human life by another means that the murderer has effectively, morally and theologically, forfeited his own right to live.” “The death penalty is intended to affirm the value [and] sanctity of every single human life, and thus by the extremity of the penalty to make that visible and apparent to all,” Mohler said.
I happened to read that California won’t be getting rid of the death penalty through legislative means anytime soon. This time, the idea was to put it to a public referendum, since simply passing a bill to repeal it was out of the question for some reason. The latter would have only taken a majority vote, the former takes a 2/3 vote. Since over 1/3 of the legislature is Republican, that’s pretty much that. Why not just repeal it outright? Glad you asked! There’s some hint in the HuffPo article about a fear of public backlash, but the idea that a majority-minority state would flip to the GOP over the death penalty is pretty farfetched for me. No doubt some remaining echoes of Tom Bradley and George Deukmeijan still linger somewhere, but still, that was 25 years ago. There’s no reason for this. Illinois did away with executions earlier this year, and it’s much less Democratic than California. And while I suppose it’s entirely possible that an outright repeal would be overturned at the ballot box next year, I just don’t see where the money is supposed to come from to finance such an effort. It would take millions of dollars to get all the signatures, there’s no real grassroots organizing to support capital punishment, and getting rid of it doesn’t really hurt anyone’s pocketbook. I don’t even think the LDS Church would have the heart to subsidize a campaign like that.
I mention that the state is majority-minority because it’s not news that minorities are sentenced to death more than white people. One would think that a state-level party apparatus that is propped up by minority support would be inclined to do right by these folks–seriously, take away Hispanic support and you’ve got a state that would be sending an awful lot of Dana Rohrabachers to Congress. And yet here, as with the marijuana initiative last year, the Democratic Caucus of the California Legislature pushed forward with the most gutless (and, ironically, most difficult) plan to roll back the excesses of “law and order” politics, and failed once again in ways that will make life harder for the people that power the Democratic majority in California. One could also point out the conscious decision not to field another amendment legalizing gay marriage in 2012. But the death penalty thing is a whole other thing. To be honest, I’m frankly shocked. I can sort of get the marijuana thing–there are questions of federal vs. state prerogatives that could have turned into a very dicey legal battle, so putting it to the people makes some amount of sense to have as leverage before doing it. And I can sort of understand letting the legal process play out in the case of gay marriage before plotting the next move. But to have or not to have capital punishment is not that way at all, lots of states don’t have it and if the public really objects to getting rid of it, then politics can take its course and vote opponents out. Which, thanks to very tight gerrymandering, is highly unlikely. The fact is that this is just the tip of the iceberg that is the bad faith behind the California Legislature, and I’m sure I’d be able to rattle off a bunch more if I paid closer attention. But you really don’t need to in order to grasp this essential truth. To be honest, if our state’s government only had a level of dysfunction similar to Washington DC’s, it would be a huge improvement.
This is why I’m actually really happy that the state’s independent redistricting commission has scrambled districts at every level, since it can only ensure more competitive districts and more dynamic politicians. Certainly, it can’t get any worse. I mean, honestly, term limits in the state are six years for Assembly members and eight years for Senators. It’s not like a twenty-term Congressional career is at stake here. So the risk is losing 2-4 years in state government in order to do the right thing? Those aren’t enormous stakes, if you ask me. But I do not work in the worst state government in the United States. That might seem harsh, but considering the problems we have here I feel I’m reining it in quite a bit.
I think I’m all tapped out on feeling emo about Obama, so I’ll move onto something else…
The death penalty is one of my big issues, and has been for over a decade now. I see it as indefensible and a bad idea for a lot of reasons that I’ve talked about before–go ahead and click the link below the post if you want to read those. Anyway, my state of California is debating putting the question of using the death penalty before voters next year with SB 490. It’s passed out of committee and will undoubtedly be voted on by the full Senate soon. This initially annoyed me, as this state’s politicians always do (why not just pass a damn law?), but the more I thought about it, the more I think it’s the smarter move. Sure, it’s politicians passing the buck to avoid being called “soft on crime”, but I’m hardly convinced that this isn’t a winnable battle with the electorate, for one simple reason: the price tag associated with the death penalty. With the state that our budget situation is in, saving $1 billion over a few years is not exactly trivial. Capital punishment has long had a polling advantage with the public, but I think the emotions around it have died down considerably–nobody really cared that Obama opposes it, etc. This means that the state’s political leaders–Jerry Brown, Kamala Harris, and our two U.S. Senators who all oppose the penalty–can make an argument against it based purely on fiscal conservatism. I have a feeling that it just might work (also, that there isn’t a financial interest in keeping the practice going really helps, as the company that manufactures the lethal gas used for executions recently went bankrupt).
The more I think about it, the more I like it. It’s going to be tough, tough work, but I can see a path forward on making it happen. It’s taken for granted that ballot initiatives are a territory of the right and of rent-seeking special interests. That’s often true. But in California it’s gone the other way as well–huge strides on, among others, insurance reform and the environment have come from ballot initiatives. They’re just a tool like anything else, can be used for good things or bad things. The bill hasn’t passed yet, but I am excited about the possibilities. After all, progressives have some money on their side, too–getting progressive ballot initiatives on the ballot would be a good tactic for us to use, especially in states where Republicans have thoroughly gerrymandered themselves into power.
I’ve opined before that death penalty opponents are winning, slowly but surely, so this seems fitting:
Here’s outgoing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley: “I believe in the death penalty. I’ll be very frank. I know there’s been abuses in the past. Yes, there are. But under our system, we should really protect life. In situations like (the murder of police officers) — this should be a death penalty case.”
I have to say I’m impressed. Not since the early-00′s work of Jennifer Lopez has there been such incredible self-refuting logic in such a short space of words. Saying we should protect life while admitting abuses of the death penalty is really impossible to reconcile. It appears like a moment of candor but it’s really just glibness. I mean, there have been abuses in the past. No reason to consider those, right? They’re in the past. Of course, once current abuses are done, they’ll be in the past as well. And, of course, not only is there no statistical evidence that capital punishment acts as a deterrent, even intuitively it doesn’t even make sense. We only use it for premeditated murders, and it seems to me that people who plan out a murder are going to be the ones who think they can get away with it and aren’t going to be fazed by the off chance they’ll be executed after decades’ worth of legal fights. Thinking that, of course, doesn’t mean it’s true. But intuitively, it doesn’t wash for me.
And then there’s the favorite tactic of glib assholes everywhere: tossing out one extreme, emotional case to make the point. Never mind that capital punishment doesn’t bring the dead back to life, nor does it deter crime. It protects life! Somehow. What strikes me about these arguments is just how lazy they are. Arguments in favor of capital punishments haven’t changed at all since I was a kid. Not one bit. Arguments against gay people, on the other hand, have changed enormously. I suspect in the latter case it’s out of necessity: traditionalists have constantly lost arguments on the subject of LGBT rights, and have had to alter their rhetoric to contend with some powerful emotional counterarguments. But capital punishment arguments haven’t changed at all, largely because the competing emotional arguments are much more limited. The best arguments are, sadly, people who have been wrongfully executed. My theory of change is that it often takes lots of wrongfully dead people for it to happen. Until then, I’m going to take the little bits of progress I can get. It’s up to you, Governor Quinn.
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