Real answers to questions about death penalty reform

A coalition of district attorneys, law enforcement, and victims’ rights advocates are proposing a statewide ballot initiative to reform the death penalty in California. Californians for Death Penalty Reform and Savings answers the most frequently asked questions regarding the death penalty in California.

Why do we need a statewide initiative to reform the death penalty in California? Top

The state legislature refuses to follow the will of the people. The citizens of California have repeatedly stated that they favor the death penalty. Voters of the state of California have continued to implicitly affirm the death penalty nine times since it was reinstated in 1972.(1)

The legislature has repeatedly shown their disregard for their constituents by failing to reform the death penalty. They refuse to act. Therefore, the only way to carry out the will of the people is through the initiative process.

The citizens of California do not support a broken death penalty system. They do not favor a death penalty that is never carried out and has endless delays that costs taxpayers millions of dollars.

How much money would the state of California save if the death penalty were reformed? Top

Tens of millions of dollars.

One of the changes this initiative would make is that it would allow the Department of Corrections to double-cell death row inmates and to house condemned inmates at prisons other than San Quentin.  The Legislative Analyst’s Office already estimated that eliminating costly single-cell housing at San Quentin would result in tens of millions of dollars in savings annually.

What does the Death Penalty Reform Initiative change? Top

It expands the pool of available defense attorneys.

It requires that a defendant who is sentenced to death be appointed a lawyer at the time of sentencing, rather than waiting for years just to get a lawyer.

It allows the Department of Corrections to house condemned inmates in less costly housing with fewer special privileges.

It requires that condemned inmates work and pay restitution to victims.

It allows CDCR to enact an execution protocol, without having to reply to every question or suggestion by any person in the world who sends them a letter.

It gives the California Supreme Court oversight over the state agency that manages death penalty appeals.

Are there sufficient protections in place to make certain an innocent person is not executed? Top

Yes. There is no evidence that the state of California has ever executed an innocent person. This was confirmed by the Alarcón/Mitchell study of 2012, which conducted an extensive examination of the use of the death penalty in California over the past several decades. The findings of that study were:

“California has approached the implementation of its death penalty system with caution and, as a result, no evidence has been presented that the prosecution of persons accused of capital crimes has resulted in the execution of someone who was innocent.”(2)

Governor Jerry Brown, who is personally opposed to the death penalty, has reviewed many death penalty cases, and stated:

“I think people have gotten exquisite due process in the state of California.  It goes on for 20 or 25 years and to think that they’ve missed anything like they have in some other states; I have not seen any evidence of it. None. I know people say, ‘Oh, there have been all these innocent people,’ Well, I have not seen one name on death row that’s been told to me.”(3)

Doesn’t the Death Penalty Reform Initiative simply remove protections afforded to death penalty inmates and make it more likely an innocent person may be executed? Top

No. In fact, the initiative actually provides defendants with increased protection by providing more qualified lawyers and making sure the defendant can get a lawyer immediately after sentencing.

Who is on death row? Top

The worst of the worst criminals. Only 750 out of the 128,080 prisoners housed in the California Department of Corrections are on death row. (4) Their victims include 229 murdered children, and 43 murdered peace officers. Two-hundred and nine-four of the victims were sexually assaulted and tortured. The inmates of death row include people like Randy Kraft, who sexually assaulted, tortured and murdered 16 young men between 1972-1983.

Isn’t the death penalty racially biased? Top

36% of condemned inmates are African-American, 34% are Caucasian, 24% are Hispanic, and 6% are other races.(5) Studies consistently fail to find any discernible bias against minority defendants, including those conducted by anti-death-penalty advocates.(6)

Isn’t it true that the death penalty costs much more than life without parole? Top

No. In fact, life without parole is much more expensive than a properly implemented death penalty. Opponents argue that housing and long-term medical costs significantly increase death row expenditures. However, the actual facts do not support this claim. California would save millions of dollars in housing and medical care by streamlining the process and executing death row inmates as the courts have ordered, thus relieving the tax burden borne by all California citizens.

Why does it take an average of 12 years for a death penalty case to be heard and resolved by the California Supreme Court? Top

Currently, a condemned inmate may wait over four years just to have a lawyer appointed.  Then, with a single lawyer working on a case, it takes years just to review the trial record.  Providing attorneys immediately after sentencing and increasing the number of available qualified attorneys will result in expedited appeals.

“The failures in the administration of California’s death penalty law create cynicism and disrespect for the rule of law, increase the duration and costs of confining death row inmates, weaken any possible deterrent benefits of capital punishment, increase the emotional trauma experienced by murder victim’s families, and delay the resolution of meritorious capital appeals.”(7) (California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice)

Isn’t it true that the people who want to “reform” the death penalty process are simply right-wing conservative extremists? Top

Support for death penalty reform is bipartisan and widespread. In 2008, a bipartisan, legislatively appointed commission recommended that the death penalty process be reformed.

“We currently have a dysfunctional system. The lapse of time from sentence of death to execution averages over two decades in California. Just to keep cases moving at this snail’s pace, we spend large amounts of taxpayers’ money each year: by conservative estimates, well over one hundred million dollars annually.”(7) (California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice)

Who supports the Death Penalty Reform Initiative? Top

The California District Attorneys Association, Police Officers Research Association of California (PORAC) and numerous law enforcement agencies and organizations.


  1. Judge Arthur L. Alarcón and Paula M. Mitchell, Executing the Will of the Voters? A Roadmap to Mend or End the California Legislature’s Multi-Billion-Dollar Death Penalty Debacle, 44 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. S41, S223 (2011), available at http://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/llr/vol44/iss0/1
  2. Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Board Interview, Jerry Brown: No Innocent Inmates on Death Row, San Francisco Chronicle Blog (Mar 7, 2012), available at http://blog.sfgate.com/djsaunders/2012/03/07/jerry-brown-no-innocent-inmates-on-death-row/
  3. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Division of Adult Operations, Death Row Tracking System Condemned Inmate Summary List, (2015) available at:http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/capital_punishment/docs/condemnedinmatelistsecure.pdf
  4. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Report, Weekly Report of Population as of Midnight, October 21, 2015, available at: http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Reports_Research/Offender_Information_Services_Branch/WeeklyWed/TPOP1A/TPOP1Ad151021.pdf
  5. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Division of Adult Operations, Death Row Tracking System Condemned Inmate Summary List (2013), available at http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Capital_Punishment/docs/CondemnedInmateSummary.pdf
  6. Kent Scheidegger, Rebutting the Myths About Race and the Death Penalty, 10 Ohio State J. Crim. L. 147, 164 (2012).
  7. California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, Report and Recommendations on the Administration of the Death Penalty in California (2008), available at http://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=ncippubs