LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California voters will decide in November whether to repeal the death penalty in a state that is home to nearly a quarter of the nation’s death row inmates, after activists collected the more than 500,000 signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot.
The ballot initiative focuses on the high cost of the death penalty in a state that has executed 13 people since capital punishment was reinstated in the nation in 1976. Another 723 inmates sit on death row pending lengthy and expensive appeals.
The move, which comes as a number of states reconsider capital punishment, would abolish execution as the maximum sentence in murder convictions and replace it with life imprisonment.
If the measure passes, it was expected to save the state in the “high tens of millions of dollars annually,” according to an estimate of the fiscal impact of the bill that is included in the text of the measure.
“We’ve spent billions of dollars killing 13 people. There is a much better system,” said Steve Smith, a campaign consultant for SAFE, which got the initiative on the ballot. By contrast, Texas has executed 481 people during the same time period.
The ballot measure was approved as a growing number of states question the use of the death penalty, and comes less than two weeks after Connecticut lawmakers voted to repeal the death penalty there.
California could join 17 other states and the District of Columbia without capital punishment, assuming the Connecticut law goes into effect.
“It’s unusual and could be historic. I don’t think any state has removed the death penalty through referendum since the 1960s. That was Oregon. They (later) reinstated it,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
“In most states, it’s a legislative process,” he added.
Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey have all chosen to abolish the death penalty in recent years, and New York’s death penalty law was declared unconstitutional in 2004.
Other state legislatures are considering bills to end the death penalty, and Oregon’s governor has said he would halt all executions on his watch.
‘SPITTING IN THE FACE’ OF VICTIMS?
But opponents of the measure, which would commute the sentences of the state’s existing death row inmates to life in prison, amounted to an assault on victims of what they described as the most vicious crimes in California.
“The individual who qualifies for the death penalty under special circumstances has done a lot more than just kill somebody,” said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, a Republican from northern California who is the former chairman of the California Board of Prison Terms.
He said that abolishing the death penalty on the issue of cost would amount to “spitting in the face of the grieving victims of these vicious heinous atrocious murderers.”
A Gallup poll taken last year found that a majority of Americans -- 61 percent -- approved of using the death penalty for those convicted of murder, although support was down from a peak of 80 percent in the mid-1990s.
Similar support was evident in California, where a poll by the state’s Field Research Corporation last year found 68 percent supported capital punishment for serious crimes.
Scott Thorpe, CEO of the California District Attorneys Association, has said reforms to the appellate process could reduce costs associated with executions. He could not be reached for comment on Monday.
In addition to abolishing the death penalty, the California measure would also create a $100 million fund to be distributed to law enforcement agencies to help solve homicides and rapes.
It would also require convicted murderers to work in prison, and would apply their wages to any victim restitution fines or orders against them.
State Senator Loni Hancock, a Berkeley Democrat who backed a bill in 2011 that would have placed a similar measure on the ballot, said the initiative would give voters the chance to eliminate a punishment that is rarely carried out and costs $184 million a year more than life imprisonment of the same felons.
Tax money is being spent on death penalty appeals while community colleges and libraries face cuts, Hancock said. At the time it was approved, she said, “people really didn’t understand, and still may not, the cost implications of the death penalty.”
A spokesman for California Governor Jerry Brown could not immediately be reached for comment.
Additional by Cynthia Johnston, Emmett Berg and Adam Weintraub; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Dan Burns, Eric Walsh and Lisa Shumaker