Letters to the Editor

Pro/Con Should California Abolish Capital Punishment?

Punishment does not make sense for state

By Gary Peters

As of August 2011, California had 712 people on death row; nationally, there are more than 3,200. Since 1978, California has executed only 13 people, while Texas since 1976 has executed 476.

However, according to the U.S. Census Bureau the murder rate per 100,000 in 2009 was the same in both states, 5.4. The rate was highest in Louisiana, at 12.3, and lowest in New Hampshire, at 0.9; both states have the death penalty.

A recent Gallup poll found that while 61 percent of Americans support the death penalty as a punishment for murder, that is down from 80 percent in 1994. Commenting on that decrease, an editorial in The New York Times on Oct. 14, 2011, stated “that striking difference suggests that more Americans are recognizing that killing a prisoner is not the only way to make sure he is never released, that the death penalty cannot be made to comply with the Constitution and that it is in every way indefensible.”

For these and other reasons, including those below, California should abolish the death penalty, as have most modern countries.

1. Cost.

According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, abolishing the death penalty would result in “net savings to the state and counties that could amount to the high tens of millions of dollars annually ”

In a June 20, 2011, article in the Los Angeles Times, “Death penalty costs California $184 million a year, study says,” Carol Williams wrote that “taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment in California since it was reinstated in 1978, or about $308 million for each of the 13 executions carried out since then ”

2. Irreversibility.

Execution cannot be reversed. This fact leads to the expensive appeals and delays that help increase the high cost of death penalty cases noted above. The only way to ensure that no innocent person is ever executed is to abolish the death penalty.

3. Religious beliefs.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 78 percent of Americans profess to be Christians. Exodus 20:13 tells us “thou shalt not kill.” There is no asterisk or footnote about exceptions.

Romans 13:8-9 says “owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not kill Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

In his Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II stated that “execution is only appropriate in cases of absolute necessity, in other words when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” It is not necessary here.

4. Justice.

The Pledge of Allegiance ends with the words “with liberty and justice for all.” Though it is a splendid ideal, it is not reality for some racial and ethnic minorities. For example, African-Americans comprise about 12 percent of the nation’s population but more than 40 percent of those currently on death row in the United States; 35 percent of those executed since 1976 were African-Americans.

5. Deterrence.

As data in the first paragraph suggested, the death penalty is not necessarily a deterrent to others. This was confirmed in a 2009 study by M. L. Radelet and T. L. LaCock, “Do executions lower homicide rates?: The views of leading criminologists,” which found that the vast majority of criminologists believe that the death penalty provides no more of a deterrence to murder than does the threat of a lengthy imprisonment.

In combination, these arguments may help some of you think about whether or not the death penalty makes sense for California today. If not, think about this: By permitting the death penalty we share that in common with such countries as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran and Cuba.

Maybe Desmond Tutu was right when he said that “to take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice.” We should give serious thought to his words and this issue.

Gary L. Peters is a retired California State University geography professor. He has authored or coauthored 10 books, including texts on California and population geography and two books on wines. He has lived in San Luis Obispo County since 2003. While not affiliated with a political party, Peters offers a liberal perspective on issues.

Arguments to repeal penalty fall short

By John Allan Peschong

Despite the seemingly hyperpartisan times we live in, there is at least one issue that a majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents support — capital punishment.

According to the latest Field Poll conducted two months ago, 68 percent of California voters favor keeping the death penalty. I am one of those 68 percent.

While I believe in the sanctity of life, I also believe the state has a responsibility to protect the lives of its citizens. The death penalty, in addition to being the ultimate punishment, serves as a deterrent to other criminals who may commit violent crimes and take innocent lives.

In the face of overwhelming support, opponents of capital punishment have zealously sought abolishment of the practice for decades. Their arguments range from moral to constitutional and even practical grounds, but ultimately they all fall short.

On moral grounds, public opinion seems to have settled this argument with 50 years of California polling data showing solid support of the death penalty. Like it or not, morality often follows the tide of public opinion.

More importantly, the fact that the deterrent effect of capital punishment can actually save lives justifies the state’s right to execute the most violent criminals.

On constitutional grounds, capital punishment has withstood the test of time. Except for a brief period in the 1970s, the U. S. Supreme Court has upheld capital punishment, and in California, people voted overwhelmingly to amend the state Constitution to allow for the death penalty. In fact, California voters have expanded the use of the death penalty to include 39 special circumstances involving murder.

On practical grounds, opponents argue that capital punishment is not a deterrent to capital crimes and that capital punishment costs more than incarceration. The former argument has been repudiated numerous times by scientifically based, peer-reviewed studies, while the latter argument is often misleading .

A 2007 New York Times article reported that a dozen studies showed for each inmate put to death, three to 18 murders are prevented. So not only does capital punishment ensure convicted murderers will never kill again, but it also deters other potential murderers. Further addressing this point, Nobel laureate Gary Becker, a leading figure in the death penalty debate, wrote in the Economists’ Voice, “I believe the preponderance of evidence does indicate that capital punishment deters.”

The death penalty does cost more than a life sentence. However, the extra cost is associated with California’s lengthy appellate process and a lack of attorneys qualified to handle capital appeals.

A study conducted by a senior U.S. 9th Circuit judge and Loyola Law School professor accumulated findings from case studies between 1983 and 2006 and concluded that death penalty trials cost “about $1 million more per trial than the costs of average nondeath penalty homicide trials.” In total, the “Executing the Will of the Voters?” study determines the death penalty in California cost taxpayers $184 million in 2009.

I believe the value of an innocent human life is priceless. Despite the high cost of the death penalty in California, it does save between three and 18 lives according to most economically based and peer-review studies. However, if the debate does come down to dollars and cents, government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration find the “statistical value of life” to be $9.1 million and $7.9 million, respectively. If we reform and speed up the capital punishment appeals process in California, the value of the lives saved would be greater than the cost of the death penalty.

John Allan Peschong served in President Reagan’s administration at the White House and later as a senior strategist for the campaign of President George W. Bush. He is a founding partner of Meridian Pacific Inc., a public relations and public affairs company. He serves as chairman of the San Luis Obispo County Republican Party.