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Epic Win: SAFE California Act to replace the death penalty will be on the November ballot

April 23, 2012

It’s official. The SAFE California Act, the initiative to replace the death penalty with life in prison with no possibility of parole, has qualified for the November ballot. The last of California’s 58 counties have tallied our signatures and we far exceeded the half-million needed to qualify. In fact, members of the SAFE California Campaign collected so many signatures with such a high validity rate that we qualified even earlier than we expected.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this occasion. This is epic. We’re talking game-changing, earth-shattering, Cecil B. DeMille epic.

And Californians are not alone in this moment. In fact, the tide is rapidly turning on the death penalty across the United States. The wave has washed over five states in the last five years, most recently in Connecticut where this week the Governor will sign into law the bill replacing the death penalty.

We’re not alone but what we do really matters. Our state has a storied history with the death penalty. Since 1978 we’ve built up the nation’s largest death penalty system, housing a full 20% of the nation’s entire death row population (more than 720 men and women) in the most expensive incarceration facility the state has to offer. In 2009, just one California county handed down more death sentences than the entire state of Texas. But that history is rapidly changing.

Today, voters have more information than ever. We know, for example, that California’s death penalty is a hollow promise. Despite over 30 years of sentencing more and more people to death, only about 1% of them have actually been executed --  a total of 13 executions since 1978.

We also know more about the costs -- we’ve spent a whopping $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978 with no public safety benefit at all in a state where nearly half of all murders remain unsolved and over half of reported rapes cases are never cleared. That’s one of the reasons so many family members of murder victims and law enforcement professionals have joined the SAFE California Campaign to replace the death penalty. They would prefer to use our savings to catch killers and prevent crime rather than fund an empty symbol.

Even two of the principal architects of California’s death penalty have changed their minds. Don Heller, who wrote the death penalty law in 1978, and Ron Briggs, who helped enact it into law, both call it “a colossal failure”. They have joined SAFE California and have pledged to replace it.

The truth is that the SAFE California Act is a game-changer of massive proportions. Voters in California will get to choose for the first time between the death penalty and life with absolutely no chance of parole. And it will be the first time that we have a fully informed vote. SAFE California will do everything possible to explain to voters the staggering fiscal and social costs of the death penalty, as well as the inevitable risk of executing an innocent person.

Everything points to another epic win, this time at the ballot box in November. Recent polls show California voters are ready to replace the death penalty.  Both the Public Policy Institute of California and Field Poll have found that when given the option, more California voters opted for life in prison without the possibility of parole over the death penalty. This November will be the first time ever that California voters are given a choice to weigh in this deeply important issue with real information.

SAFE California is a historic campaign that will change California forever – for the better. Once we replace the death penalty in November, we will save millions in public safety dollars and California will never again risk executing an innocent person. We’ll soon have the opportunity to use  hundreds of millions of dollars in budget savings to improve personal safety for families across our state.

The death penalty first went under in New York and New Jersey in 2007. Then it was New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011, and now Connecticut this year, poised to become the 17th state to replace the death penalty. With SAFE California’s qualification for the ballot, California can be next.

- Written by Jeanne Woodford, former Warden at San Quentin State Prison, current Executive Director at Death Penalty Focus, and official proponent of the SAFE California Campaign.