By Jasmine Liu
Besides the heated and dramatic contest for the White House that will pull many students away from their p-sets to the polls for an hour on Nov. 8, a no less important but certainly less publicized fight over ballot initiatives will be up for grabs for Californian voters. Especially consequential for the advancement of social justice is Proposition 62, which seeks to end the death penalty. Unless we are to be complicit with the systematic killing of the dispossessed or even merely support the codified ability for our government to have such a tool at its disposal, then ending capital punishment is a critical first step.
A foundational principle of our legal system is equal protection before the law. As powerless as removing the death penalty may be for the purpose of remedying the inequalities embedded in the system, capital punishment serves to empower the very apparatus that is broken. With great power comes great responsibility — responsibilities the American justice system is unequipped to handle. Exonerations are common: The Innocence Project documents that DNA evidence has found over 150 people innocent on death row nationwide. Yet even with the presence of such technology, wrongful convictions continue, encouraged by a system that overemphasizes the role of witness testimonies and undervalues the principle of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It is also impossible to ignore the demographics of exonerees: Joint data from the Innocence Project and the NAACP finds that 70 percent are people of color, with 73 percent of those being African-American. It is no accident that the complicated, multi-layered legal system filters out the accused who are affluent and white while leaving low-income minorities to a predestined fate.
Admittedly, California has not executed a convict for 10 years, but if anything, this should be more of a reason to definitively put an end to the practice. In fact, since 1978, despite the 743 inmates on the state’s death row, only 13 inmates have been executed. These prisoners live in a murky in-between state, where they must await their legal sentence despite the state’s limited will to carry it out. Yet Prop 66, a ballot initiative aimed at shortening the time allowed for legal appeals, would only exacerbate the inaccuracies and injustices of the criminal sentencing. Additionally, at a whopping cost of $384 million per execution, the death penalty is 18 times more costly than life in prison without parole — the sentence that would replace the death penalty under Prop 62.
For the legions of voters who have become disillusioned this election cycle by “establishment” candidates and the perception of voter inefficacy, the California ballot initiatives present a real opportunity to affect direct change on a very specific issue. A vote to end the death penalty is not enough and perhaps in some ways counterproductive if it serves to make us complacent, with the most cruel and unusual manifestation of a network of subtler injustices gone. Nonetheless, it is equally likely to be the next step in a continuing and productive discussion in the United States about mass incarceration and institutional inequalities. There is reason beyond blind optimism to believe this will occur. Citing Proposition 34 from 2012, Bryan Stevenson, author of bestselling novel “Just Mercy,” opines that at the time, “the ballot initiative lost by only a couple of percentage points. Almost banning the death penalty through a popular referendum in an American state would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier.” Perhaps this time we can expect victory.
Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.