After a losing a round in the Legislature last week, advocates of abolishing the death penalty in California announced a new effort Monday to take the matter directly to voters next year.
Organizers say they will push for a ballot measure to focus the public's attention on the high cost of keeping inmates on death row – $4 billion since 1978, according to one estimate – and offer guarantees that condemned prisoners could never win release from prison.
"It is time to replace California's dysfunctional and horribly costly death penalty," former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti said at a Sacramento news conference. "The death penalty in California is broken and it is unfixable."
Garcetti was joined by former San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford, who presided over four executions; Sacramento attorney Don Heller, who wrote the 1978 initiative that restored the death penalty in the state; and crime victims who said the money spent on death row should be used to fight crime.
Under the plan offered by the group, which calls itself Savings Accountability and Full Enforcement, or SAFE, condemned inmates would be given life without the possibility of parole and would be required to work in prison.
Contending that $184 million is spent annually in California on the death penalty, the group said the initiative would take savings from abolishing it and instead spend $30 million a year in the first three years on unsolved murder and rape cases.
The notion that the campaign will focus on saving money by abolishing executions left one death penalty advocate bemused.
Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, said the people pushing for abolition are the ones who have contributed to the high cost of the death penalty.
"The death penalty doesn't need to cost anywhere as much as it does," he said. "The only reason it does is that the very same people who are complaining about costs have succeeded in killing every reform we have."
Scheidegger contends reforming the appeals process could cut years off the average time it takes from sentencing to execution, eventually cutting that time down to five years.
Currently, death row houses more than 700 inmates, some of whom have been there for decades.
Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, 13 inmates have been put to death at San Quentin, two by cyanide gas and 11 by lethal injection.
The last inmate to be executed was Clarence Ray Allen in January 2006. Legal fights and a shortage of one of the injection drugs used in the process have derailed other planned executions.
Advocates of repealing the death penalty say they will need up to $1.5 million to gather the more than 500,000 valid signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot.