Thursday, January 05, 2012


This may well be the year that another 12 percent of the United States--California, to be specific--moves to abolish the death penalty.  An organization called SAFE (Savings, Accountability, Full Enforcement) California is working to put repeal of the state's capital punishment law on the November ballot.  Should the initiative succeed, California would join sixteen other states that have already abolished the death penalty.

The principal argument that SAFE California makes in favor of abolition is that the death penalty is costly and ineffective.  There is data to support the claim.  According to the Death Penalty Information Center, California had 721 inmates on death row on January 1, 2011.  But, since 1976, only thirteen people have been executed in the state.  (There have been no executions in California since 2006 when a federal court struck down the existing method of lethal injection.)  Some may argue that this simply means the state needs to streamline its use of the death penalty rather than abolishing it, but such an argument is, fundamentally, an argument that California ought to be more like Saudi Arabia or the People's Republic of China in circumventing such legal niceties as the rights of the accused and prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishments.  Furthermore, it is an argument that runs contrary to the fact that, since 1973, 139 people on death rows across the United States have been exonerated.

As Adam Cohen notes in a Time magazine essay, what is happening in California and elsewhere in the United States is abolition prompted by grassroots pressure in the states.  It is not what many death penalty opponents have been hoping for since the U.S. Supreme Court's reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, that is, outlawry (or at least suspension) in one fell swoop by Supreme Court fiat.  That is what had happened, temporarily, in Furman v. Georgia in 1972.  There are, Cohen notes, certain advantages to death penalty abolition state by state.  "What we are seeing," Cohen writes, "is not a small group of judges setting policy.  It is a large number of Americans gradually losing their enthusiasm for putting people to death."

Viewed from the standpoint of international relations, abolition of the death penalty is one of a number of issues on which the Untied States lags behind international human rights standards.  The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is premised on the belief "that abolition of the death penalty contributes to enhancement of human dignity and progressive development of human rights" and thus mandates that "no one within the jurisdiction of a State Party to the present Protocol shall be executed."  The Protocol is, of course, optional, but it has been accepted by 73 states, including most of the democracies of Western Europe, Canada, and Mexico.  Those the United States would include among its closest allies have abolished the death penalty.  Those often condemned by the United States for their lack of respect for human rights--the People's Republic of China, North Korea, Iran, and Syria, for example--have not.

It's time to end the death penalty all over the United States, but if abolition has to be accomplished one state at a time, so be it.  California should be next.