Ending the Death Penalty

IN NOVEMBER, Californians will vote on a ballot initiative that would end the death penalty in the state: the Safety, Accountability, and Full Enforcement Act of 2012, known as the SAFE California Act. The backdrop of this vote is California’s deep economic crisis and the economic savings to be gained from ending capital punishment. But when the debate is largely concerned that the cost of killing criminals is just too high, where does faith come into the conversation?

If the measure passes, all 725 death penalty sentences in California will be converted to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The supporters of the initiative have one main mantra: “California can’t afford the death penalty!” This initiative delivers on savings—around $1 billion in the first five years, say supporters—due to halting the death penalty’s expensive legal processes and increased costs for death row detention.

The initiative also redirects some of those funds, $30 million per year for three years, to counties across the state to help investigate unsolved cases of rape and murder. In 60 percent of rapes and 36 percent of murders in California, no one is even charged with the crime, let alone convicted.

Death row prisoners are generally not allowed to work; once their sentences are changed under this initiative, they will be required to work inside the prison and to pay into California’s victim compensation fund.

People of faith usually argue to end the death penalty on gospel and ethical grounds, citing the command “thou shalt not kill,” the call to forgive, and the call to love our enemies. However, the most compelling variable at play in this historical moment is California’s budget crisis—in this case, as always, the budget is a moral document. Where we spend our money as a society discloses our true values and priorities: It shows whether we believe in the God of life or the power of death.

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