Californians to Vote on the Death Penalty

One day short of 34 years since Californians voted to enact the current death penalty law they may decide to end it.  Supporters have gained over a half million signatures to place the repeal measure on the November 6th ballot.

The fact that this has made it to the ballot is quite remarkable.  Not suppporting the death penalty had traditionally been one of those ‘third rail’ issues that nobody would dare touch, But the initiative to be voted on in November specifically represents the evolution of how people think society can keep them safe.

The approved summary of the measure is:

maximum punishment for persons found guilty of murder and replaces it with life imprisonment
without possibility of parole. Applies retroactively to persons already sentenced to death.
Requires persons found guilty of murder to work while in prison, with their wages to be applied
to any victim restitution fines or orders against them. Creates $100 million fund to be distributed
to law enforcement agencies to help solve more homicide and rape cases. Summary of estimate
by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government:
Net savings to the state and counties that could amount to the high tens of millions of
dollars annually on a statewide basis due to the elimination of the death penalty. One-time
state costs totaling $100 million from 2012-13 through 2015-16 to provide funding to local
law enforcement agencies.

The momentum for this initiative began with a study ten months ago that laid out how much we were spending on the death penalty.  As I described in my prior post, it laid out a fairly strong economic argument against the death penalty. In keeping with the discussion of opportunity cost that I mentioned in that posting, the proposed repeal specifically directs most of the savings in the first three years into a fund to help police solve currently unsolved murders and rapes.

So in some respects this is an initiative designed to resonate with voters in lean times. In prosperous times if you asked California voters “Which do you think will keep you safer, this or that” the likely answer would have been “Do both!”. This is an initiative that presumes that resources are not unlimited and choices are unavoidable.

If one were to try to express mathematically the effectiveness of deterring crime it could look like this:

Criminal Deterrence = Certainty of punishment * Severity of punishment

And in theory you could actually put numbers to that equation with conviction rates, execution rates, etc..  However, in reality it is more the perception of these factors than the actual figures that create deterrence (and the expectation of deterrence).  During the 70’s, the general anxiety in society was that the police were overwhelmed and that increasingly severe punishments would provide a reduction in crime.  But the equation described above demonstrates that as the certainty of the punishment approaches zero, then the deterrence also approaches zero no matter how high the severity.  The discontent with the death penalty can be linked to its low rate of implementation even when ordered by the court.  As demonstrated in the below graphic, most death row inmates are never put to death:

Meanwhile increased awareness of forensic science, and the popularity of police procedural crime dramas focused on it, have created a growing impression that if you simply throw enough science (with requisite funding) at a case then even the most mysterious crime is solvable.  This is particularly true of the ‘cold case’ crime dramas.  The popular cultural message is that there may be a better payoff in the deterrence equation through investing in the certainty side of the equation.  Cue the funky rock montage with lots of test tubes, whirling machinery, flashing computer screens, lab coats, and facilities with lots of really cool lighting.

That’s going to be the fundamental decision for the electorate, a cost/benefit question.  Take the money we are spending ineffectively pursuing the severity of punishment and spend it, hopefully effectively, on the certainty of punishment.


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  1. The very acronym for the “SAFE” Act is bogus. The costs claimed by SAFE are exaggerated and the costs of the “SAFE” Act’s life imprisonment would be much more expensive due to life-time medical costs, the increased security required to coerce former death-row inmates to work, etc. The amount “saved” in order to help fund law enforcement is negligible and only for a short period of time. (It is nothing more than a bribe in a vain effort to obtain conservative votes.) Bottom line, the “SAFE” Act is another attempt by those who are responsible for the high costs and lack of executions to now persuade voters to abandon it. Obviously, the arguments of the proponents of the SAFE Act would disappear if the death penalty was carried forth in accordance with the law. Get the facts at

    1. Thank your for summarizing the argument against the proposition. The presumption that we would save on lifetime medical costs of course presumes that we are not doing that already. With the average time-to-execution of 25 years and growing we would seem to already be providing a lifetime of medical care. California is facing the likelihood of being ordered to expand the currently overcrowded death row facility at an estimated cost of $400 million. In reality the prime cause of California’s backlog of death cases is a shortage of lawyers willing to focus in death penalty appeal law and to take on years of emotionally draining work at what the State is willing to pay. The study which gave impetus to this initiative laid out three policy options: one of which was to restore credibility to the death penalty by spending more on lawyers and courts at a cost of $85 million per year. So simply saying we just have to carry out the death penalty according to the law is not without its own set of substantial costs.

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