Though much of the focus on the Nov. 6 election has centered on the presidential race, several significant measures that will affect California policy will also be considered.
One such proposal is Proposition 34, which seeks to abolish the state’s death penalty for convicted murderers, according to the California Official Voter Information Guide. This would apply not only to future trials but also retroactively to existing cases; prisoners who have already been condemned to Death Row would now receive life in prison without the possibility of parole.
A poll released Sept. 25 by the University of California, Berkeley and the Field Group showed that 45 percent of total likely voters are opposed to Prop. 34, while 42 percent of voters are in favor. Thirteen percent said they are undecided. Opinions on the issue are largely dependent on party lines: 50 percent of Democrats responded that they plan to vote for the proposition but only 23 percent of Republicans said the same.
USC students have mixed opinions on Prop. 34 and on the death penalty itself. USC College Republicans President Maddy Lansky, a senior majoring in political science, said she opposes the measure.
“When you consciously and intentionally take someone’s life, you lose the ability to keep yours,” Lansky said.
USC College Democrats President Aaron Taxy, a junior majoring in international relations, has a different opinion on the issue.
“Virtually no other countries have a death penalty besides the United States,” Taxy said. “The United States has the worst murder rate of any developed country, so there’s no evidence that the death penalty is [a] deterrence.”
Under California’s current system, criminals who are convicted of first-degree murder plus special circumstances — if the murder was particularly heinous, occurred for financial gain or occurred along with other criminal activities — are eligible to receive the death penalty. Once a criminal is sentenced to death, his or her case is automatically appealed to the California Supreme Court. After that, the condemned prisoner has the right to appeal his or her case many more times and before many more courts, judges and juries before the sentence is actually carried out.
One argument for the ballot measure is that doing away with capital punishment will be more cost-effective, according to Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the Sol Price School of Public Policy.
According to the proposition, former Death Row prisoners would be required to work and pay their earnings to their victims’ families. The state would also save money by reducing the costs of the special individual-cell housing and extra security allotted to Death Row inmates, as well as on lawyers’ fees for criminals who cannot afford their own lawyers but seek to appeal their cases.
“In California, we spend seven times as much on death row inmates than we do on life sentence inmates because the appeals process is incredibly expensive,” Taxy said. “California really can’t afford its current criminal policy. Unless we reform it, Proposition 34 really is the best option.”
Other proponents took issue with the ethics of capital punishment.
Merahm Hamdan, a senior majoring in math and theater, said she objects to the death penalty on grounds that it is immoral.
“I’d rather see someone imprisoned for life,” Hamdan said. “I have a hard time with the idea of taking another person’s life. It rubs me the wrong way and I think it rubs everyone the wrong way. I wouldn’t say murderers and rapists don’t deserve the death penalty, but taking someone’s life is a really hard thing to do.”
According to Jeffe, proponents also argue that eliminating the death penalty will ensure that innocent individuals are not executed in California.
“One of the most compelling arguments is there is always a question that an innocent person will be sentenced to death and will have the death penalty implemented,” Jeffe said.
Prop. 34 opponents argue, however, that eliminating the death penalty would actually cost the government more money. Opponents say it will cost $100 million over the next four years because of the lifetime housing, food and healthcare benefits that former Death Row inmates would receive.
Another argument against repealing the death penalty center on the importance of ensuring that justice is served and taking the victims’ families into account, Jeffe said.
Steven Lam, a sophomore majoring in biological sciences, also said that the serving justice is more important than cost.
“I’m more in favor of keeping the death penalty because I feel for the victims’ families,” Lam said. “The cost of having peace of mind shouldn’t matter. I think finding solace for the victims’ families is more important.”
The section with the case against the measure in the Official Voter Information Guide, for example, says that abolishing the death penalty is “indefensible, cruel to loved ones of victims, misleading and insulting to voters and dangerous for California.”
Lansky echoed this argument as a reason for opposing the proposition.
“I think about the Aurora shooting — would we be OK if he only got life in prison and not the death penalty?” Lansky said. “Unless you know someone who’s been murdered, I don’t think you can really understand.”
Prop. 34 is the latest attempt to quash the death penalty after it was suspended in 1972 and reinstated in 1978 by Proposition 7.
Daniel Rothberg contributed to this report.