Replace Death Penalty With Life Imprisonment Without Parole
Passage of Proposition 34 would replace California’s existing death penalty with a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole as the maximum punishment for murder.
Throughout the development of Jewish thought, Jewish leaders and communities have consistently expressed reverence for the value of a human life. In Genesis we learn that humans are created b'tzelem elohim, “in the image of God,” which asks us to see the holiness in each other and the sanctity of the life of each human. The idea expressed in the Mishnah—that “Whoever saves a life, it is as if he saves the entire world”—permeates Jewish tradition.
While biblical law delineates 36 offenses that warrant capital punishment, some later rabbinic and medieval commentators found the idea of state-based executions so morally problematic that they deliberately erected insurmountable legal obstacles, effectively eliminating death as a means of state-sponsored punishment. Moreover, the rabbinic penal arsenal lacked any effective alternative to the death penalty. The goal of the rabbinic judicial system was to make whole the tear in the fabric of society caused by a murder, by allowing murderers to atone for their crimes. Passage of Proposition 34 would achieve both of these goals without deploying state-sanctioned killing of human beings or executing the innocent. Liberal and progressive American Jews have, for centuries, worked to abolish capital punishment in America. All major Jewish denominations are on record as either opposing the death penalty outright or supporting a moratorium.
Proposition 34 provides a chance to renew the spirit of our ancestors and continue to raise the moral stature of California society. By voting “yes” on Proposition 34, we can repeal the capital punishment apparatus in California and eliminate execution as a punishment. Proposition 34 would also automatically convert the sentence of every inmate condemned to death to one of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The current capital punishment system is broken and cannot be fixed. Countless studies have shown that the death penalty discriminates against the poor and people of color, that it is not a deterrent to crime, and that flaws in the system pose the inescapable threat of executing the innocent. In fact, 140 innocent people have been freed from death row in the United States in recent decades, and those are just the condemned inmates we know about. More and more states across the nation—and most nations in the western world—have abolished the death penalty.
Despite the fact that California has not executed anyone since 2006 (because the state has no method of constitutionally conducting executions), criminals are still being tried in capital cases, convicted, and housed on death row. Indeed, while many more inmates on California’s death row have died of natural causes (55) or committed suicide (19) than have been executed (13), California has spent about $4 billon on death penalty-related costs since 1978, amounting to approximately $308 million per execution. These excessive costs are a problem at many levels: the death penalty system—trials, housing, and appellate review—is much more expensive than incarcerating an inmate for life. Thus, the death penalty costs Californians far more than its more humane alternative of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The death penalty robs us of millions of dollars that could be better invested in police and public safety, health, education, and a host of other vital public services.
Passage of Proposition 34 would save an estimated $100 million or more per year, not to mention the immense savings to municipal and city governments. A portion of these savings—$10 million in fiscal 2012-2013 and $30 million in the following three fiscal years—would be put into a local crime prevention fund to be used specifically to investigate unsolved homicides and rapes.
Proposition 34 is supported by people across the political and ideological spectrum: a former California Supreme Court Justice who voted to uphold death sentences while serving on that Court, district attorneys, prison wardens, families of victims and the authors of the previous initiative to reinstate the death penalty in 1978. It is also supported by religious and secular groups alike, including the California NAACP, California League of Women Voters, Northern California Board of Rabbis and Catholic Bishops of California.
A society where the state is in the business of legally killing its citizens is morally corrosive. It is time for California to join the 17 other states (including, in the past five years alone, New Jersey, New Mexico, Connecticut and Illinois) that have abolished capital punishment. By voting YES on Proposition 34, we will leave behind the ignoble legacy of state-sponsored execution and begin the hard work of justice by reforming our prisons, making victims and their families whole, and allowing transgressors to repent and atone. Then perhaps we will turn our cities into places of righteousness.