Proposition 34: Should California Overturn the Death Penalty?

San Quentin's death penalty chamber. (Photo: Scott Shafer, KQED)

San Quentin's lethal injection room. (Photo: Scott Shafer, KQED)

The death penalty is on the ballot in California in November, in the form of Proposition 34.  While death penalty discussions usually involve the topic of morality, there is little of that in the proposition’s language. Instead, Prop. 34 focuses on money. Specifically, what would be saved by abolishing the death penalty — billions of dollars, according to Jeanne Woodford, executive director of Death Penalty Focus. She explained the number on KQED’s Forum this morning.

The figure [PDF] actually came from Justice Alarcon, who is the 9th circuit court judge,” she said, further explaining that Alarcon supports the death penalty and his then-law clerk Paula Mitchell, who co-wrote the analysis, does not. They studied the issues for five years, Woodford said. “They concluded that we have spent $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978, and if we continue with the death penalty we will spend up to another $7 billion on the death penalty by 2050.”

In addition, Woodford pointed to the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office report which estimates savings of $130 million annually within a few years of passage of Proposition 34 — with the caveat that its estimate could vary by tens of millions of dollars.

At first glance, Woodford is an unusual spokesperson for overturning the death penalty. She served as warden at San Quentin State Prison, which houses California’s death row, and she’s the former director of the California Department of Corrections. Woodford spent 26 years total at San Quentin, having started in 1978, the year California reinstated the death penalty. She says the death penalty is an “illusion” — just 13 people have been executed since 1978, and another 729 people are on death row.

Kurt Scheidegger is the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. The savings estimates are sorely lacking, he says, because they do not take health costs into account. “You have the cost of incarcerating people and you have the cost of medical care which has become a huge portion of the Department of Corrections budget,” he said “and that portion gets larger as people gets older. If you give the people of California an iron-clad guarantee that these murderers will never be released, that means you’re going to keep them to the end of their natural lives and, as we all know, the cost of health care escalates sharply as we get older.”

Then there are the costs to victims’ families, Woodford argued. The years of litigation that comes with a death penalty conviction are draining. “They spend years and years reliving these cases over and over again,” Woodford said, “and then so many of these cases are overturned, a high percentage. … It’s really so harmful, so hurtful to victims’ families.”

But Scheidegger counters that the years wasted are reason for reform not repeal. He insists that much of the litigation has to do with the death penalty sentence itself, not guilt. “We spend far too time much examining the decision whether to sentence him to death or not,” Scheidegger said. “That’s a decision that needs to be reviewed carefully, but it only needs to be examined once. So we could simply eliminate all these additional appeals, reserving them exclusively for issues of guilt and save a huge amount of money, save a huge amount of time which saves the incarceration costs as well and we can also deliver justice effectively in these cases.”

Prop. 34 requires $100 million to be directed over four years to law enforcement agencies for the investigation of murder and rape cases. About half of all murder and rape cases are not solved in California. Woodford believes ending the death penalty would save money and that the money is well-spent on solving cases.

Again, Scheidegger countered that law enforcement agencies are unlikely to get additional dollars. He says the legislature will reduce general fund money to law enforcement by whatever amount Prop. 34 sends in.

You can listen to all their arguments here, on Forum:

  • Chris Bernstien

    The arguments in support of Pro. 34, the ballot measure to abolish the death penalty, are exaggerated at best and, in most cases, misleading and false. Proposition 34 is being funded primarily by a wealthy company out of Chicago and the ACLU. It includes provisions that would make our prisons less safe for both other prisoners and prison officials. It significantly increases the costs to taxpayers due to life-time medical costs, the increased security required to coerce former death-row inmates to work, the money to pay those inmates to work, etc. The amount “saved” in order to help fund law enforcement is negligible and only for three years. (The money is taken from the general fund irregardless of whether Prop 34 actually saves any money.) Prop. 34 also takes away funds inmates could use to actually fight for their innocence, increasing the risk that innocent people will spend the rest of their lives in jail. The dollars Prop. 34 takes away ensure both that innocent people are not executed or spend the rest of their lives in jail. Get the facts and supporting evidence at and

  • Cat Burke

    Vote NO on
    Proposition 34 – If you can’t do it
    for yourself, do it for your children…

    My 14 year old
    daughter, Kessa, is waiting… To stand behind the glass, and watch as
    they execute William Gary Simpson. She can’t feel SAFE, until he is
    DEAD. She speaks of this, every single day! Because she has
    nightmares of what Simpson did, every single night. It is her way of
    dealing with the trauma of witnessing Simpson murder her sister! It is
    this hope to see him die, that keeps her going forward, for now…

    And for ME? I saw everything that demon, William Gary Simpson, did on December 20, 2011… I now know it is true – that MONSTERS

    And I am
    living proof, THAT NO ONE IS SAFE!

  • Cat Burke

    December 20, 2011

    William Gary Simpson
    came into our home that morning, with the intention of killing my husband and
    three children, myself, and the 7 other children who were to be staying with us
    over Christmas break. Why? Because – he could not stand for us to
    have so much love in our home! He could not tolerate my children, and all
    the other children, being loved so unconditionally, the way he wanted his
    parents to love him. HE COVETED WHAT WE HAD…

    When the DA asked me
    “why” he did not kill his own family, but targeted ours – I answered with my
    insightful truth. In the heart of every child, they have ‘hope’ that one
    day their parents ‘will’ love them unconditionally. Their parents will
    finally ‘see’ and ‘hear’ them. If Simpson had killed his own parents, he
    would never get those things that he wants so much! So he chose, instead,
    to take it from all of us…

    Revenge and Justice are all
    we ever hear, from everyone! It is
    all that is discussed with regard to the Victim, when looking at the Death
    Penalty. But I have a different
    perspective, from within this inadequate justice system we currently bear…

    For there is truly no
    Revenge great enough,

    No Justice powerful


  • Cat Burke

    We raised our children
    in a warm, loving, family oriented home. I stayed home to raise my
    children. I spent every day of Saskia’s entire life with her! We
    have always had many children choose to spend time at our house, with our
    family. They liked to enjoy the structure of a family unit, a place where
    “mom” was always present, always involved. A home where homework was finished
    after school each day. A home where dinner was cooked, and the family ate
    together, EVERY SINGLE NIGHT! Where family games were played together at
    the table, and stories were read before bed… These children thrived on being listened to and included in
    an unbiased and unprejudiced environment. And they have always felt loved
    and accepted, here in our home. In a world where it is hard to find all
    of these things, our home was ‘sanctuary’ for children. My strong belief
    that it takes a community to raise the kids, held each child to my own high
    moral standards. This too, helped each child to become a better person,
    which in turn made the environment for my children better too! Because
    you see – I once believed it was possible, to make the world a better place,
    one child at a time. And when I look back, at all the children I’ve made
    a difference to? I can think of nothing better a person could ever hope
    to do with her life! I have succeeded in making a positive difference in
    this world! And the personal reward I receive – is the overwhelming love
    and respect from everyone in my life!

  • Cat Burke

    a mass murderer, William Gary Simpson entered our home the early hours of Dec.
    20… He went into our son Ian’s
    room first – the only bedroom downstairs. He thought, from the rumpled
    covers, Ian was in bed sleeping. He stabbed into them, only to discover
    Ian was not there. So, he placed the knife on the bed, and threw the
    covers back over it.

    was when Saskia went downstairs at 4am for a bottle of water! “AAHHHH!” Our
    entire house awoke to her screams! “AAAAHHHHH!” As I ran from my bedroom and encountered my
    13-year-old daughter on the upstairs landing, I ordered her to stay there –
    ‘DON’T GO DOWNSTAIRS!’ “Daddyeee! AAAAAHHHHHH!!!” I ran downstairs, as Saskia continued to scream in
    pain and terror, “Daddyeeeeee!” “AAAAAAHHHHHHHHhhhh!”, to discover Saskia already dead on the floor. And Simpson,
    standing over her with that 15-inch knife, dripping with her blood. My
    husband and another child tackled Simpson. I took away the murder weapon.
    I was going to grab
    the phone, and call for help, but the phone was missing. I ran out front,
    and screamed for help! All I could think of was getting help for my
    daughter! I threw down the murder weapon, and saw a man across the street
    getting into his truck. I screamed for him to call the police, we need an
    SHE MAY BE DEAD – I NEED HELP! And I ran back inside –

    I did not know, Simpson had brought
    more weapons. I came back in to discover he had stabbed my husband (many
    times in the back, puncturing his lung), and to my horror, was standing over
    this child who was begging for his life, (Gary, you don’t have to do this! Please Gary!) and brought the knife
    down, severing the artery in his neck! I ran to stop him, but could not
    reach him in time… As he brought the blade down again severing the
    artery, and the blood shot out of his boy’s neck, and covered everything! I
    grabbed the blade as he brought it up the third time, and my husband tackled
    Simpson. I realized too much in that moment… I realized my Saskia
    was dead! I realized this boy and my husband were both going to die, as
    both were bleeding out… I realized, I was going to die. My
    13-year-old daughter stood on the steps, hearing and watching all of this!

    HE WAS!!!

  • Cat Burke

    I am Catherine Burke –

    Mother of a Murdered Child
    – AND – Victim of Violent Crime!

    I offer to each and every
    citizen, the true reason we should have the Death Penalty – PROTECTION!

    the decision that capital punishment may be the appropriate sanction in extreme
    cases is an expression of the community’s belief that certain crimes are
    themselves so grievous an affront to humanity that the only adequate response
    may be the penalty of death.”

    Protection is the
    only reason why we must vote NO on Proposition 34!

    In a Mass Murderous
    attack upon the Burke family while they lay sleeping, my 18-year-old daughter,
    Saskia Savana Burke, was brutally stabbed to death here in our home December
    20, 2011… Her murderer, William Gary Simpson, has been arrested and
    charged with Saskia’s murder, 2 counts attempted murder, several counts of
    special circumstances including lying in wait.

    is eligible for the death penalty.

    William Gary Simpson took our
    CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness when he
    CHOSE to commit mass murder. He
    took these rights from us, FOREVER when he murdered Saskia!

    I would have never
    thought, I would find myself to be the mother of a murdered child, the victim
    of a heinous, violent crime. We
    were Once the Burke’s – good, moral parents, who raised our children in a very
    loving home. Our murderer, coveted that love we had… Our murderer, was a friend of our son’s – a friend to our
    family, for over 10 years… Ten years of birthday parties, Christmas
    vacations, summer sleepovers and pool parties. Ten years of classes with
    our son, fieldtrips, lunches and recess… Ten years, of paintball games
    and 4th of July fireworks, of hanging out and playing Rock Band in our living
    room… Our murderer was raised by his mother in a privileged home,
    attended the same good schools as our children, and he received good
    grades. I could have never thought he would plan and practice for almost
    1 year, to come into our home with a duffle bag full of knives 4 days before
    Christmas (after hiding in an empty nearby home waiting for all our children to
    come home), to murder us all! He
    slashed and stabbed my daughter to death, when she went downstairs for a bottle
    of water at 4am…

  • Borsia

    The reason the Death Penalty costs so much is all the BS that keeps these scum alive fir decades. They should get 1 appeal and 1 review that looks at all evidence, including anything excluded pro or con. Then on the 365th day after sentencing they should get 1 injection of cyanide. It is 100% effective every time it is common and there will never be a shortage.

    But I do offer a substitute;
    Living death. They get to live in a 10′ x 8′ white room with no windows, no TV, no radio, and most of all no human contact of any kind. They never get to see anyone, talk to anyone or feel the touch of sunshine or a kind hand.

    The max cost allowed is $10k
    they get only prison loaf. There is no parole, no time off, no holiday and absolutely no exceptions. If they get sick and die then that is the end of their natural life.