On Nov. 6, the people of California will make an important choice, one that’s literally a matter of life and death.
California’s Proposition 34, if passed in this month’s general election, would eliminate the death penalty, replacing it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. Fiscally, that’s a sound change: since 1978, Californians have spent upwards of $4 billion executing just 13 people, according to a 2011 study by federal judge Arthur Alarcón.
It’s absolutely true thatCaliforniastruggles financially. The state budget crisis threatens to crunch spending across the board. Simply put, theCaliforniataxpayer can’t continue to shell out $184 million a year to pay for a punishment we hardly use.
But for all the fiscal sense Prop. 34 makes, there’s a better reason for passing it, a better reason that every Californian should stand up and advocate for it.
We ought to abolish capital punishment not because it can kill innocent people—even though it can. We ought to abolish capital punishment not because it’s inhumane—even though it is. We ought to abolish capital punishment not because it harms the loved ones of an executed murderer deeply and unfairly—even though it does. We ought to abolish capital punishment in order to be on the right side of history.
It’s an argument that isn’t made enough when it comes to the death penalty. Love capital punishment or hate it, it will be judged by history. That judgment will not be positive.
Consider death by hanging. In the early American West, settlers punished criminals with quick trials and a quicker execution at the end of a rope. It was the long arm of justice, the institution that was seen to keep the peace, yet today we judge the men and women who strung wrongdoers up as harshly as we do the wrongdoers themselves. We consider hanging barbaric.
One day, the same will be thought of the death penalty.
California is in a fortunate position. We have the opportunity to be under the “civilized” column in the history books of the future. Shall we be remembered as a state which helped lead the way in demanding dignity and humanity in sentencing? Or shall we be remembered as a state whose own citizens would rather have gone on executing each other at the peril of our own consciences and pocketbooks?
I hope Californians know the right answer to that question.