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California Voters to Decide on Death Penalty

SAFE California Act will be on ballot on November 6

Common Dreams staff

Voters in California will now have the chance to vote on a referendum that may put an end to the death penalty in the state this November. Anti death penalty activists have collected the more than 500,000 signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot, according to state officials.

California is home to nearly a quarter of the nation's death row inmates.

If it the referendum passes, the 725 California inmates now on Death Row will have their sentences converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and it will abolish the death penalty in the state.

The referendum, "Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement for California Act," or SAFE California Act will be decided by voters on November 6, when Americans go to the polls for general elections.

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Associated Press: Californians to vote on abolishing death penalty

"Our system is broken, expensive and it always will carry the grave risk of a mistake," said Jeanne Woodford, the former warden of San Quentin who is now an anti-death penalty advocate and an official supporter of the measure.

The measure will also require most inmates sentenced to life without parole to find jobs within prisons. Most death row inmates do not hold prison jobs for security reasons. [...]

Since California reinstated the death penalty in 1978, the state has executed 13 inmates. A 2009 study conducted by a senior federal judge and law school professor concluded that the state was spending about $184 million a year to maintain Death Row and the death penalty system.

Supporters of the proposition, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, are portraying it as a cost-savings measure in a time of political austerity. They count several prominent conservatives and prosecutors — including the author of the 1978 measure adopting the death penalty — as supporters and argue that too few executions have been carried out at too great a cost.

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Reuters: Death penalty repeal to go before California voters

If the measure passes, it was expected to save the state in the "high tens of millions of dollars annually," according to an estimate of the fiscal impact of the bill that is included in the text of the measure.

"We've spent billions of dollars killing 13 people. There is a much better system," said Steve Smith, a campaign consultant for SAFE, which got the initiative on the ballot. By contrast, Texas has executed 481 people during the same time period. [...]

The ballot measure was approved as a growing number of states question the use of the death penalty, and comes less than two weeks after Connecticut lawmakers voted to repeal the death penalty there. [...]

California could join 17 other states and the District of Columbia without capital punishment, assuming the Connecticut law goes into effect.

"It's unusual and could be historic. I don't think any state has removed the death penalty through referendum since the 1960s. That was Oregon. They (later) reinstated it," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

"In most states, it's a legislative process," he added.

Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey have all chosen to abolish the death penalty in recent years, and New York's death penalty law was declared unconstitutional in 2004.

Other state legislatures are considering bills to end the death penalty, and Oregon's governor has said he would halt all executions on his watch.

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Agence France-Presse: California to weigh ending death penalty

If the resolution passes, California would become the 18th US state to eliminate the death penalty.

When the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, "we did not have an alternative sentence that would keep convicted killers behind bars forever. We certainly did not know that we would spend $4 billion on 13 executions," the measure's official sponsor Jeanne Woodford said in a statement.

"Our system is broken, expensive and it always will carry the grave risk of a mistake. SAFE California offers a solution with savings at a time when we're laying off teachers and cutting vital services," added Woodford, a former warden at San Quentin State Prison.

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