In California, on average, 46% of murders and 56% of rapes go unsolved each year. For victims and their families, and for the cause of public safety, these numbers are profoundly disturbing.
A new ballot initiative (changing the law in California often requires a direct public referendum) aims to do something about this, by redirecting funds wasted on the death penalty ($184 million per year according to a recent study), to local police and prosecutors to ensure that more crimes actually get solved. Since 1978, there have been 13 executions in California, at a cost of $308 million per execution. In 2009 alone, the best year of the decade for solving murders, there were 722 unsolved homicides.
Bringing killers and rapists to justice is obviously very important for victims and their families, and is also clearly vital to public safety. And whatever deterrent value you might think the death penalty has (probably none), it is vastly overshadowed by the reality that, now, if you commit murder in California, you have an almost 50/50 chance of never getting caught at all.
The proposed initiative would also require those convicted of murder to work in prison and provide restitution to victims’ families. And, importantly, it would end California’s shameful association with the notorious human rights abuse of capital punishment.
If this initiative gets on the ballot and voters approve it in November 2012, California will finally escape from the financial (and human rights) black hole that is the death penalty, and will be free to focus its resources more effectively on public safety and on the real needs of victims.
Until I attended law school, my strongest exposure to court rooms came from an old “L.A. Law” addiction. (If you don’t know what that is, do me a favor and don’t depress me by asking. Think “Boston Legal” for the 80s.) One of my girlfriends in grad school came from a family with a strong legal tradition and was a lot savvier than me when it came to actual courtroom experience. For years, her father argued cases in front of the Supreme Court and I listened with interest as she shared insider’s knowledge. Jennifer said that one of the hardest things to explain to her dad’s clients was that by the time the cases reached the Supreme Court, they were not about them. They had become cases about the law and the way the law is interpreted for everyone.
I’ve been thinking about that lesson this morning, as the California Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to Proposition 8. It’s been a hard thing to explain to the people of California – and the country- that Proposition 8 is not just a case about same-sex marriage. It’s a case about the rights of all minority populations in California.
If that doesn’t seem obvious, let me explain. The California Constitution, like all constitutions provides fundamental rights for those under its jurisdiction. Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that marriage was a fundamental right and must be extended to same-sex couples. When Californians voted for Proposition 8, they voted to take away a fundamental right of a minority group. The case is really about whether we can allow fundamental rights to be taken away from citizens by majority vote. Do the majority of voters have the power to take away constitutional rights from any group? The answer must be no. Otherwise, every minority group based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender, is vulnerable. Without the security of equal protection under the law, all minority groups are at risk of losing fundamental rights whenever the majority decides to take them away.