California’s the death penalty is a failed and costly policy that offers murder victim family members a false sense of justice and wastes valuable criminal justice dollars that should be used for solving and preventing crime. The death penalty is applied unfairly and, worst of all, it is an imperfect system that runs the risk of executing an innocent person. This, above all, is the most egregious violation of our civil liberties.
The ACLU of Northern California has a long history of exposing the problems with the death penalty in our state and advocating for the alternative sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prop. 34: A Bold Campaign
Most recently, the ACLU-NC joined forces with some unlikely allies to build a strong, statewide coalition to sponsor a voter initiative for the November 2012 election. Proposition 34 has been described as an “audacious” and “bold” campaign. Indeed, we knew we set out to achieve a daunting task: to convince the voters in the most populous state to close the largest death row and to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole. The last time California had an up or down vote on the death penalty was in 1978 when more than 70% of the voters supported the Briggs Death Penalty Initiative.
After more than 12 million votes were cast, the final result was 48% yes and 52% no, a margin of only 500,000 votes. That means that if just 250,000 voters had changed their minds and voted yes instead of no, we would have won. This is an even narrower margin than on Proposition 8, the 2008 initiative to ban same sex marriage in California. California is now evenly divided on the death penalty—what was a 40 point gap in 1978 has shrunken to just a 4 point gap today.
Changing the Conversation
Although we failed to achieve our ultimate goal of replacing the death penalty in California, the Yes on 34 Campaign did succeed in forever changing the landscape on this issue in this state. With 48% of voters supporting repeal, we have shown that the state is now evenly divided on the death penalty, and we have fundamentally changed the conversation. When we began, many people thought we did not have a chance; now, the political consensus is that California’s death penalty is on its way out. The question remains when and how it will go.
The ACLU of Northern California will continue to be a leader in this effort and look forward to the day when we all can depend on a fair and working justice system.