Why we can't say yes to SAFE

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty explains why it isn't supporting a "yes" vote on a California ballot measure that would end capital punishment.

San Quentin State Prison, which houses California's death rowSan Quentin State Prison, which houses California's death row

IN NOVEMBER, the people of California will be voting on Proposition 34, a ballot measure that could repeal the death penalty there. Since it won a place on the ballot, the Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California (SAFE) Act has been a topic of debate among criminal justice reform activists.

California has an enormous death row and has been a stalwart death penalty state--so it would be incredibly significant if capital punishment was abolished there. It would send a signal nationally that a big death penalty state can fall and bring the number of states without the death penalty to 18. It is possible that this growing rejection of the death penalty in states could put us closer to a national ban on the death penalty either by a Supreme Court decision or federal legislation.

It would also take over 700 people off of death row! A de facto moratorium has been in place in California since 2006 because of a legal challenge to execution protocol. As the state moves closer to instituting a new "humane" execution method, the danger of the moratorium being lifted grows ever closer. Many cases have exhausted their appeals and there is a danger that several executions will be planned as soon as the moratorium is lifted.

Removing the death penalty sentence in California would also qualify many more people to serve on juries in capital cases. Currently, anyone who does not believe in the death penalty is prohibited from serving on juries where the death sentence is a sentencing option.

These are important considerations in discussing the impact of death penalty repeal in California, and have made it difficult and dispiriting for activists who want to end the death penalty in California, but have serious issues with the proposition as it is written.

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THE CALIFORNIA measure is in many ways similar to the legislation that has passed in states across the country, and especially the recent death penalty repeal in Connecticut. Life Without Parole (LWOP) has been promoted as the alternative to death sentences, and tough-on-crime and cost-cutting language has been put at the forefront of the public campaign in favor of the initiative.

While the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) has taken the position that we do not support LWOP as a "just" alternative to the death penalty, in the past, we have offered support to, yet were critical of, bills in other states that have abolished the death penalty and replaced it with LWOP. In California, we understand that it is the default sentence if the death penalty is abolished.

However, many abolitionists and other criminal justice reform activists are uncomfortable with actively supporting this ballot initiative for reasons beyond its conservative language.

Because this is not a bill passed by a legislature, it cannot be modified or changed in new legislative sessions. Rather it is a ballot measure, so anything codified in it is much harder to revoke, requiring a new ballot measure voted on by Californians to change it.

Therefore, it locks down a few things that are very objectionable--for example, the large fund created by the SAFE Act which funnels money exclusively to police and prosecutors. Putting more money into law enforcement's hands in order to "save lives" is one of the most backwards parts of the SAFE Act. It's hard to imagine that the families of Alan Blueford, James Earl Rivera Jr, or Oscar Grant (all innocent men of color killed by police in California) would feel safer with more police on the streets.

Law enforcement and prosecutors are on the front lines of what Michelle Alexander calls the "New Jim Crow," which is responsible for locking up 2.3 million people behind bars, disproportionately African Americans and Latinos. We want to end this injustice, not help strengthen it.

The money for the fund is being found in part by eliminating "expensive" death row appeals.

Some California death row prisoners, including Kevin Cooper, have come out against the initiative because of the money being handed to law enforcement, but also because of the LWOP component and its effect on habeas corpus appeals.

The CEDP sent letters in to over 220 California death row prisoners asking for their thoughts on the SAFE Act. Of the over 50 responses we have received, only about four prisoners have written in favor of the act. Prisoners are most concerned about their access to the appeals process.

As more and more innocent people are being let off death row, it is reasonable to assume that many innocent people are also serving life without parole sentences--except without access to the "costly appeals process" to which death row prisoners are entitled.

California is unique in the size of its death row, and in the fact that its appeals process has been greatly hampered by that and the lack of funding and lack of qualified lawyers to provide representation to prisoners. There are many folks trying to prove their innocence (as many around the country have been found innocent both on death row and in prison), and under LWOP, there is no guarantee for state-funded appeals.

Considering this, we think the money from the fund would have been better spent in funding appeals for LWOP prisoners, at the very least.

While SAFE author Jeanne Woodford, a former San Quentin warden who oversaw four executions, claims that locking people in prison for life is a way to make our communities safer, we know that is simply not true. Our movement needs to seek out real solutions for the causes of crime.

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THE DEBATE around SAFE has kicked up many questions for those fighting state-sponsored murder: What should the movement for abolition look like? Is abolition our only goal? And how should we get there? Who should we align ourselves with to get to abolition?

A look at the life of Stanley "Tookie" Williams and the grassroots mobilization to save his life shines a light on what our movement should look like.

Despite an outpouring of support from all over the world, Tookie was executed on December 12, 2005. But Tookie's death would not be in vain. Following the vibrant grassroots movement that tried to save his life, support for the death penalty in California decreased by 10 percent after his execution--something that we believe contributed to Prop 34 garnering the signatures to get on the ballot in the first place. His legacy leaves many important lessons for activists now seeking to abolish capital punishment.

As a young man Stan "Tookie" Williams helped found the Crips street gang. He was sentenced to death in 1981 and spent years in solitary confinement at San Quentin. During his time at San Quentin, Tookie underwent a transformation. He spent his remaining years writing children's books aimed at preventing gang violence. His work landed him five nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize and the reputation of a peacemaker.

In a 2001 interview, Tookie was asked what could have prevented him from going down a wrong path in the first place. His response was:

I needed a variety of things. There is no one elixir that would have helped me to transform my life. I needed a father at home, which I didn't have, a more ethnic-conscious base to teach me who I am and what my potential could be. I needed encouragement, just like these kids need now. I grew up spoon-fed with negative stereotypes, and the problem with that is that if you're fed them long enough, and you digest them long enough, you start believing them and living them out.

The problem of crime will not be solved by dumping more funds into law enforcement. Politicians often seek to get "tough on crime" without ever getting tough on the causes of crime. For example, tackling unemployment, housing problems, poverty, poor education--these are the things that need funding. Politicians also need to change policies that send people to jail for low level drug crimes and end harsh sentencing like the death penalty and LWOP as many other developed countries have.

Whether or not criminal justice reform activists ultimately vote for the SAFE Act, we must recognize that the rhetoric being used to promote the bill is out of step with building an effective anti-death penalty movement that is poised to take on other issues that the very broken criminal justice system presents--things like mass incarceration, police terrorism, poverty, prison conditions, and racism. New movements are emerging to challenge these aspects of the new Jim Crow. It is in this context that the CEDP must carefully examine our approach to legislation like this.

As abolitionists, we want to see the death penalty abolished in California and all over the United States. But we view our struggle with a wider lens. All the problems we talk about with the death penalty--in particular, the endemic racism and class bias--exist in the justice system as a whole. The CEDP has always argued that the death penalty is the sharpest edge to a broken system, and that ending the death penalty doesn't mean the end of a struggle for justice in our system.

At the CEDP, we have a different vision of death penalty abolition than the one presented in the SAFE Act--one that is a fight for humanity and justice for everyone, whether inside or outside of prison.

Because of the issues we have raised here, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty cannot add its name to the list of organizations endorsing the California SAFE Act.

First published at NoDeathPenalty.org.