Examining the California SAFE Act

In November, the people of California will be voting on a ballot measure that could repeal the death penalty there.  Since it won a place on the ballot, the Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California (SAFE)  Act has been a topic of discussion and debate among criminal justice reform activists. The full text of the SAFE act can be read here.

Over the next several months the Campaign to End the Death Penalty will be providing a forum about this debate on our website through a new blog titled "Examining the Califonia SAFE Act."

To inaugurate this blog, we will begin by outlining what we believe to be the main contours of this ongoing discussion.

To start with, California has an enormous death row and has been a stalwart death penalty state - so it would be incredibly significant if capital punishment was abolished there.  It would send a signal nationally that a big death penalty state can fall and it would take over 700 people off of death row!

A de facto moratorium has been in place in California since 2006 because of a legal challenge to execution protocol.  As the state moves closer to instituting a new "humane" execution method, the danger of the moratorium being lifted grows ever closer.  Many cases have exhausted their appeals and there is a danger that several executions will be planned as soon as the moratorium is lifted.

These are important considerations in discussing the impact of death penalty repeal in California.

Over the years, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) has offered critical support to the spate of bills for death penalty repeal in various states.

The California measure is in many ways similar to the legislation that has passed in states across the country, and especially the recent death penalty repeal in Connecticut.   Life without parole has been promoted as the alternative to death sentences, and tough on crime and cost-cutting language has been put at the forefront of the public campaign in favor of the initiative.  

However, many abolitionists and other criminal justice reform activists are uncomfortable with actively supporting this ballot initiative for reasons beyond its conservatism.

Those critical of the initiative raise a few key arguments, the first being that this is not a bill passed by a legislature that can be modified or changed in new legislative sessions.  Rather it is a ballot measure, so anything codified in it is much harder to get revoked, requiring a new ballot measure voted on by Californians to change it.  

Therefore, it locks down a few things that are very objectionable – for example the large fund created by the SAFE Act which funnels money exclusively to police and prosecutors.  The money is being found by eliminating not just "expensive" death row appeals, but also by eliminating funding for the defense to make a case for mitigation during the sentencing phase of the trial.

Also, some California death row prisoners, including Kevin Cooper, have come out against the initiative because of the life without parole component and the money being handed to law enforcement.

As more and more innocent people are being let off death row, it is reasonable to assume that many innocent people are also serving life without parole sentences – except without access to the "costly appeals process" to which death row prisoners are entitled.  

All the problems we talk about with the death penalty – in particular the endemic racism and class bias – exist in the justice system as a whole.  We have always argued that the death penalty is the sharpest edge to a broken system, and that ending the death penalty doesn't mean the end of a struggle for justice in our system.

As we align ourselves with new forces around prisoner justice work and justice system reform, at a time when the emergence of a movement against the New Jim Crow seems more possible than ever, there are nagging questions about how we go about supporting legislation like the California SAFE Act.

That is why the CEDP is initiating this blog.  In addition, we will be hosting a national conference call on July 21st, to debate the question of how abolitionists and other criminal justice activists should approach the California initiative.  The call will include a presentation from California death row prisoner Kevin Cooper and others active around criminal justice reform issues there.

This blog project aims to collect various articles that are coming out about this initiative, including writings from prisoners on the subject.  We would love folks to send our way any articles or writings that you think will add to this discussion.  Contact us at randi@nodeathpenalty.org or lily@nodeathpenalty.org.