California voted on the death penalty through Proposition 62 (8th November 2016) . Currently 31 states in the USA have the death penalty with California a relatively late convert in 1978. Interestingly the November review of that decision rarely strayed into an ethical discussion of the merits of death as a suitable and proportionate punishment. California has a barbaric prison service* so it was always unlikely that voters would be won over by anything less than Old Testament style vengeance. The arguments for proposition 62 didn’t make the tactical error of taking the high moral ground. The six principal arguments (see below) were rooted firmly in vengeance territory. In California the issue of the death penalty is a warm political topic and proposition 62 attracted more than ten million voters. The proposition was lost 54%-46%.
Proposition 62 used these principal arguments:
1 The proposition would save taxpayer money by replacing a costly, inefficient system that is unworkable.
2 The proposition would provide criminals the opportunity to work and pay restitution to victims’ families.
3 The proposition would provide victims’ families closure.
4 The proposition would eliminate the risk of executing an innocent person.
5 The proposition would erase the most extreme racial inequality in the criminal justice system, the disparity in death penalty sentencing.
6 The proposition is supported by former death penalty advocates**.
Sanctity of life obviously wasn’t believed to be a consideration for Californian voters. Argument 1 is pragmatic and can be paraphrased as ‘Why are we wasting money on these worthless criminals?’ Argument 2 is an unsophisticated attempt to reinforce blood money as a guiding principal in the Californian penal code. Blood money in this case is an annual drip-feed paid in miniscule amounts potentially over decades of imprisonment. Prisoners earn minimal wages*** meaning restitution payments are tiny- an annual reminder of the original crime This delays closure. Both arguments 2 and 3 can be eliminated as reasons for voting for proposition 62 as the agony is prolonged through bureaucracy. Argument 4 is a practical issue associated with due process. This assumes that the Californian system will prioritise the establishment of innocence rather than clear-up ratios. Argument 5 is obscene. The proposers of proposition 62 explicitly declare that black-Americans are, as a matter of simple fact, treated unjustly by Californian courts. This is horrendous but what is worse is that the proposers go on to suggest that the solution is for black-Americans, who have been treated unjustly, be incarcerated for life without parole. This is Kafkaesque. Argument 6 is intellectual cant: ‘X used to favour capital punishment but now favours Proposition 62. Therefore Proposition 62 is a good thing’.
Proposition 62 demonstrates intellectual bankruptcy and deserved to be voted down though probably not for the reason it actually was defeated. It is amoral. California has world-class universities and yet appears to be averse to a stringently argued moral case opposing the death penalty. The race to the moral bottom was achieved on the 8th of November in the Californian referendum on the death penalty.
The ballot summary is-
Repeals death penalty and replaces it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Applies retroactively to existing death sentences. Increases the portion of life inmates’ wages that may be applied to victim restitution. Fiscal Impact: Net ongoing reduction in state and county criminal justice costs of around $150 million annually within a few years, although the impact could vary by tens of millions of dollars depending on various factors*.
* See https://thinkprogress.org/yes-california-your-prison-conditions-are-still-unconstitutional-590f69069692#.lonuoxnwh see also https://oedeboyz.com/2015/10/16/voting-for-barbaric-sentences-californias-proposition-184-1994/
**Go to https://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_62,_Repeal_of_the_Death_Penalty_(2016) The principal costs identified are the appeal system where $5 billion has been spent in the process of executing 13 prisoners ($384m per execution) since 1978. They also identify that death sentence prisoners have (expensive) single cells unlike other prisoners.
***Consider this: US prisons have commercial contracts with big business to use the captive (slave?) workforce that exists in prison See http://newsone.com/1562805/prison-labor-statistics-wiki/ And the State itself uses prison inmates as a pool of cheap labour https://thinkprogress.org/thousands-of-firefighters-in-california-are-inmates-being-paid-1-an-hour-on-the-line-3301b600ff4b#.sst36l6ui So in addition to these abuses of prison inmates they are to also have up to 60% of their wages deducted as restitution (blood money).