On Thursday, the bishops of California announced their support of a state ballot measure that would end the use of capital punishment in the state, replacing it with life in prison without possibility of parole.
“Our commitment to halt the practice of capital punishment is rooted both in the Catholic faith and our pastoral experience,” the bishops said in their July 14 statement in support of Proposition 62.
The message also states the bishops’ opposition to another ballot measure, Proposition 66, which is intended to expedite executions in California by limiting appeals.
“All life is sacred … just as Jesus Christ taught us and demonstrated repeatedly throughout His ministry. This focus on the preciousness of human life is fundamental to Christianity,” they wrote. “Jesus makes clear that to love God we must love our neighbor.”
Each person “holds an inherent worth derived from being created in God’s own image” and thus “each of us has a duty to love this divine image imprinted on every person,” the bishops recalled.
“Our support to end the use of the death penalty is also rooted in our unshakeable resolve to accompany and support all victims of crime. They suffer the very painful consequences of criminal acts,” the bishops acknowledged, while adding that “Their enduring anguish is not addressed by the state-sanctioned perpetuation of the culture of death.”
“As we pray with them and mourn with them we must also stress that the current use of the death penalty does not promote healing. It only brings more violence to a world that has too much violence already. We will continue to promote responsibility, rehabilitation and restoration for everyone impacted by the criminal justice system.”
In addition to ending the death penalty in California, Proposition 62 would requires that those convicted of murder and sentenced to life without possibility of parole must work while in prison and pay restitution to victims.
The ballot measure would apply retroactively to those already sentenced to death in California. The state currently has 747 persons on the condemned inmate list, more than any other state.
According to the California Department of State, Proposition 62 would save state and local governments “potentially around $150 million annually within a few years due to the elimination of the death penalty.”
The bishops wrote that capital punishment “has repeatedly been shown to be severely and irrevocably flawed in its application. In the long – but absolutely necessary – process of ensuring an innocent person is not put to death, we have seen many accused persons being exonerated as new forms of forensic investigation have enabled us to better scrutinize evidence.”
“The high cost of implementing the death penalty has diverted resources from more constructive and beneficial programs both for rehabilitation and restoration of victims and offenders. Finally, repeated research has demonstrated that the death penalty is applied inconsistently along racial, economic and geographical lines,” they noted.
Among Proposition 62’s supporters is Beth Webb, whose sister was killed in a mass shooting in 2011. At a recent event supporting the measure, she said that “Neither me nor my mom will find closure in the death of another human being … Yes on 62 will relieve our families and let us heal.”
The death penalty has been in place in California since 1977, when the state legislature re-adopted the practice. The following year, voters approved a proposition reaffirming its use, and the 1978 statute is that under which the state currently operates.
Since 1978, 13 inmates have been executed in California. Two more California inmates were executed in other states. The most recent execution in the state occurred in January 2006.
In 2012, state voters disapproved a ballot measure similar to Proposition 62. That measure, rejected by 52 percent of voters, would also have replaced the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Another supporter of Proposition 62 is Ron Briggs, a former supervisor of El Dorado County. His family was instrumental in the 1978 ballot measure reaffirming capital punishment. In a July 7 opinion piece for the Sacramento Bee, he wrote that “I now feel compelled to admit the policy is destructive to our great state. What we didn’t know then is that the death penalty would become an industry that benefits only attorneys and criminals, and no one else.”
“Don’t get me wrong – I’m still as tough on crime as I’ve ever been. I firmly believe those who committed the most heinous acts should do the hardest of time and never again see the light of day. But it’s time to face facts: the ultimate punishment has become the ultimate failed government program,” Briggs stated.
The competing death penalty ballot measure, Proposition 66, is meant to hasten the process. It would impose time limits on death penalty reviews, and would also require that death row inmates work and pay restitution to victims.
Proposition 66 also says that “When necessary to remove a substantial backlog in appointment of counsel for capital cases, the Supreme Court shall require attorneys who are qualified for appointment to the most serious non-capital appeals and who meet the qualifications for capital appeals to accept appointment in capital cases as a condition for remaining on the court’s appointment list.”
According to the California Department of State, this “Requires appointed attorneys who take noncapital appeals to accept death penalty appeals.”
The California state department also estimates that “Increased state costs that could be in the tens of millions of dollars annually for several years related to direct appeals and habeas corpus proceedings, with the fiscal impact on such costs being unknown in the longer run. Potential state correctional savings that could be in the tens of millions of dollars annually.”
California’s bishops wrote that they oppose Proposition 66 because “The search for a fair and humane execution process and protocol has failed for decades. Any rush to streamline that process will inevitably result in the execution of more innocent people. Neither the proponents nor the opponents of the death penalty wish this result.”
Briggs called Proposition 66 “a sloppy initiative that will make things worse.” He added that “Every attempt to fix the death penalty over the past 40 years has only made it slower and more expensive, wasting resources on criminals, attorneys and a bloated bureaucracy.”
California voters will decide on the death penalty measures later this year. Other topics among the state’s 17 ballot measures include the legalization of marijuana and health requirements involving the performers and producers of pornographic films.
The bishops of California concluded their statement saying that “In November – the concluding month of the Year of Mercy – Californians have the opportunity to embrace both justice and mercy (cf. Ps. 85.11) in their voting.”
“We strongly urge all voters to prayerfully consider support for Proposition 62 and opposition to Proposition 66.”