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Sentiment Growing To Repeal Death Penalty, 3-Strikes in California

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San Quentin execution chamber, death penalty, lethal injection

A view inside the refurbished execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison. (CA Dept. of Corrections)

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – Two aspects of California’s criminal justice system are on November’s ballot: the death penalty and three strikes law. Historically endorsed by overwhelming margins, public opinion appears to be shifting in favor of repealing both laws.

An online poll released on September 13 by the California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University School of Public Policy shows that voters are overwhelmingly in favor of changing our three strikes law and split on whether to repeal the death penalty. (As an online poll, it is probably not as accurate as a traditional phone poll, but it surveyed 802 likely California voters with a margin of error of 3.5 percent.)

The poll shows that right now, 72 percent of likely voters are in favor of changing the three strikes law, Proposition 36. This is the amount (72 percent) that voted to enact the three strikes in the first place in 1994.  The way it is now, after being convicted of a two serious or violent crimes, a third felony conviction of any kind results in a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

Prop 36 mandates that life sentences can only be imposed for a third felony conviction if the new conviction is “serious or violent.”

A third felony that is nonserious or violent would still face a harsh sentence – the usual sentence for that crime would be doubled.

Note that none of this would apply to persons who have ever been convicted of rape, murder, or child molestation – they would still be subject to life in prison for a third felony of any kind.

A similar proposal was narrowly defeated in 2004, with the help of then-Oakland mayor Jerry Brown. Brown has (quite conveniently) declined to endorse or oppose anything on this November’s ballot except Proposition 30, his own tax proposal. In 2004, a last minute media blitz led to the defeat of the measure and we could still see that in this election.

However, one factor that is different this year is the economic climate, which can make voters are more conscious about the costs of incarcerating criminals indefinitely for nonviolent felonies. The state Legislative Analyst estimates that Prop 36 will save $70 million to $90 million dollars per year.

Another measure being backed with economic arguments is Proposition 34, which would repeal the death penalty.

The state Legislative Analyst estimates that getting rid of the death penalty will save $100 million to $130 million dollars per year. Even former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti has come out publicly against the death penalty, although as a prosecutor he worked to get people sentenced to death. People like Garcetti argue that the death penalty isn’t immoral, it’s just too expensive. The 729 people on California’s death row get to sit in private rooms with televisions instead of being housed with the general population where they can be made to work and pay restitution to victim’s families.

According to the aforementioned poll, 46% of likely voters are in favor of Proposition 34 and 47% are opposed with the remainder unsure. But this is truly remarkable. From 1971 to 2011 the percentage of Californians in favor of the death penalty averaged 73 percent, topping out in 1985 and 1986 at 83 percent.

In lighter news:Governor Jerry Brown is busy signing and vetoing the legislation passed in the past session, but he’s doing it with flair that would impress even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Brown vetoed a bill by Republican Assemblywoman Linda Halderman (Fresno) that would have required the Department of Consumer Affairs to post certain language on its website. In doing so, Brown wrote: “This has already been done… So in keeping with the author’s oft-stated mantra that government should not be wasteful or do unnecessary things, I am returning Assembly Bill 1892 without my signature.”

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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