California is one of 34 states that have the death penalty in the United States; however, capital punishment will be on the ballot in November. There are currently 719 death row inmates in California, and each one will potentially be effected by the outcome at the polls.
Currently, crimes listed as punishable by the death penalty include first-degree murder or premeditated murder, treason, the use of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.
“There’s no other Western nation that has the death penalty,” said Ronald Huff, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology, Law and Society. “You can’t be a member of the European Union if you have the death penalty.”
Professor Huff has been studying wrongful convictions since the 1980’s and has worked with states on coming up with compensation plans for those who have been wrongfully accused.
“If you make a mistake, you then can let them out and give them money to compensate them. What happens if you execute them and you find out that you’ve made a mistake?” he said.
“Our criminology system isn’t great, and innocent people who are found guilty don’t deserve capital punishment,” said Poelene Silla, a fourth-year psychology and social behavior and criminology, law and society double major.
Of more than 230 people exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing, over 25 percent were convicted of murder and 17 were sentenced to die. These 17 people sentenced to death were convicted in 11 states and served a combined 209 years in prison, with 187 years on death row for crimes they did not commit. In fact, since 1973 over 130 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.
However, many people remain concerned with the costs of imprisoning someone for life, considering health and medical care for inmates as they grow with age.
Some argue, though, that the costs of appeals, which usually go all the way up to the Supreme Court, and lethal injections exceed the cost of housing inmates for life.
“I have mixed feelings,” stated Nicolas Sempertegui, a fourth-year public health and political science double major, “In the end, it comes down to costs.”
“In fact, [life imprisonment] is cheaper,” Huff said.
“You put them in prison until they’re going to be executed and then all these Supreme Court appeals are automatic, so you’ve already sunk 15 or 20 years into their imprisonment costs anyway.
Then they probably wouldn’t live as long as the average person anyway, given prison conditions. So you’ve got all these costs anyhow, and then if they’re there for life without parole you don’t have all those automatic appeals to the Supreme Court because you’re not taking their life, so it’s actually cheaper.”
Through the years, there have been many methods in which capital punishment has been executed in the past, including hanging, fire squads, gas chambers, and lethal injection.
Many controversies have arisen with the methods used to execute the death penalty and many of them have not been able to survive judicial review.
The institution of capital punishment was suspended in the United States from 1972 through 1976 as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia in 1972, where the court found the death penalty to be unconstitutional because it violated the eight amendments in imposing cruel and unusual punishment.
After 1976 when several restrictions were placed on the death penalty to keep it from being unconstitutional, over 30 states have reinstated it.
“I support that in a sense it helps create more space in the prisons but I’m against it because it doesn’t really do what it is set out to do — prevent people from doing crime,” Sempertegui said.
“There’s no empirical evidence that it’s a deterrent,” Huff said,
“There’s at least as much evidence that homicides go up after highly publicized executions than that they go down.”
Although there are many factors to consider regarding the death penalty as a whole and what is appropriate for each specific case, it will ultimately be up to the voters in November to decide whether or not California will be using the death penalty in the future.