In a recent article, reporter Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle asks whether candidates running for statewide office, such as our former and perhaps next Governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr., and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, who is running for Attorney General, may lose votes because of their opposition to the death penalty.
In fact, while California voters “support” the death penalty in the abstract, further questioning reveals that they actually prefer the alternative of life imprisonment without possibility of parole (LWOP), also known as permanent imprisonment, or better yet LWOP plus a provision for restitution by the prisoner to the victims’ compensation fund (LWOP+R).
When offered a choice between death and LWOP, 55% of Californians polled in 2009 by the Survey Research Center at the University of Virginia preferred LWOP, and only 37% the death penalty, with 8% unsure. When LWOP+R was offered, only 26% still preferred the death penalty, while more than 66% preferred LWOP+R.
In California, LWOP, or permanent imprisonment, has actually been in place since 1977 for all persons convicted of capital crimes who are not sentenced to death. The categories of murder with “special circumstances” automatically subject to permanent
imprisonment were greatly expanded in 1978 by the Murder Penalty Initiative (Proposition 7).
Since 1977, over 3700 prisoners in Callfornia have been sentenced to LWOP, and only a handful have been released, those later found to be actually innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. One hundred and thirty eight death row prisoners have been released due to wrongful conviction nationwide since 1972. Apart from these cases of exoneration, permanent imprisonment in our state means exactly what it says. A small number of prisoners who committed their crimes before the 1977 and 1978 LWOP statutes were enacted, such as Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson, get periodic parole hearings under an earlier law.
Further, restitution, the “R” part of LWOP+R, is already in good part the law in California. Ironically, however, opportunities to perform various forms of work and service whose proceeds can be devoted to crime victims and their families are now often sought by individuals serving LWOP sentences but denied to them due to our overcrowded facilities. Adequate program funding could make LWOP+R not only the ideal but the consistent reality in our state, a goal worthy of action through either the Legislature or a voter initiative.
As the (CCFAJ) showed in its report of 2008, replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment would save over $125 million a year. This money could be used both to strengthen prisoner
restitution programs, and to assist law enforcement at a time when in many of our counties only about 50% of murderers are caught, convicted, and imprisoned. Victim advocates stress the importance of reopening “cold cases” and getting killers off our
streets, thus promoting the public safety and doing some justice for forgotten murder victims and their families.
In short, conscientious and farsighted candidates for statewide office can and should exercise responsive and responsible leadership by fully considering the alternatives to the death penalty.