Come Nov. 8, California voters will not only have the opportunity to voice their choice for the president of the United States, but also to influence state legislation. There are 17 measures in total on the ballot in California — each promising something different. Given the barrage of political commentary surrounding the presidential race, these measures regrettably receive far less attention. There are, however, as many special interests in “ballot measure politics” as there are in presidential politics. By Election Day, more than $400 million will have been spent on signature gathering efforts and campaigning.
Despite the large sums spent to both support and oppose ballot measures, few commentators are talking about Proposition 62 and Proposition 66. Proposition 62 — the more controversial of the two — would eliminate the death penalty in California. Proponents of the measure advocate replacing capital punishment with life without parole for first-degree murder. Alternatively, Proposition 66 would expedite the execution process, cutting through the death-row bureaucracy to create a more streamlined petition and appeals process. Essentially, one measure seeks to abolish the death penalty entirely, while the other intends to increase the number of state executions. Though these measures propose different reforms, one particular truth remains the same: How one votes on either measure ultimately indicates one’s support, or lack thereof, for human rights.
Proposition 66 is a response to a dysfunctional system. Since 1978 when California voters reinstated the death penalty, only 13 of 1,039 convicted murderers sentenced to death have been executed. The comparatively small number of executions is, in large part, the product of an appeals process that takes about 25 years. Overall, the system, which has detained an ailing and aging death row, has cost taxpayers about $5 billion in the last 40 years. Supporters voting “yes” on Prop. 66 claim that this measure will cut costs and expedite the process by designating trial courts to review death row convictions, limiting the number of petitions the accused may submit and increasing the pool of lawyers available to take on appeals.
Opponents of Prop. 66 — including Sen. Barbara Boxer — have fought back, claiming that Prop. 66 would increase not only the cost of criminal justice by overloading county courts but also the likelihood that innocent people will be executed. About one in 10 of California death sentences are overturned — a statistic that highlights the risk of speeding up the execution process.
Similarly, supporters of Prop. 62, a measure to abolish the death penalty, point to the monetary cost associated with executions. Abolishing the death penalty and dismantling a costly system would precipitate annual savings of about $150 million. Although the exorbitant burden the death penalty places on taxpayers should be reason enough to end a practice that provides no demonstrable deterring effects or real relief to victims’ families, the principal reason voters should choose to vote “yes” on Prop. 62 is the protection of human rights.
One hundred forty countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Worldwide, governments are recognizing both the inefficiencies and the implications of supporting such a practice. Execution arguably violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also violates the right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as provided by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Across the globe and in the United States, the death penalty has been shown to be disproportionately applied to racial and ethnic minorities, against the poor and to people with mental illness or intellectual disability. Although historic U.S. Supreme Court decisions, such as Ford v. Wainwright and Atkins v. Virginia, have sought to address these issues, California has a death row population riddled with extreme cases of mental illness. Moreover, the application of the death penalty is often arbitrary. Whether one receives a death sentence has less to do with the severity of the offense and more to do with whether one is represented by a competent lawyer.
Despite all the evidence demonstrating that the death penalty is simply beyond repair, polls show that approximately 49 percent of California voters still support the death penalty. As a campus that values social justice, members of the USC community — particularly students who are California voters — must vocally advocate for the protection of human rights, voting “no” on Prop. 66 and “yes” on Prop. 62.
Bailee Ahern is a senior majoring in political science and international relations. Her column, “Lend a Hand” runs every Monday.