Yes on 34

Hello, my name is Gillian, and I hate talking on the phone. I hate it. The advent of text messaging seems like it was made especially for me. I can talk to people without having to talk to them! I don’t have to steady myself with deep breaths before dialing! Or practice voicemail messages! Because talking on the phone is for the birds!

And yet, on Sunday I volunteered 3 hours of my afternoon to call people on the phone. Not just people, but STRANGERS. Strangers who mostly did not want to talk to me. Some of whom were not at all shy about how much they did not want to talk to me. Because I guess, there’s like, something that I actually believe in. And care about. So much that I will voluntarily call strangers on the phone! And it’s California Proposition 34. In case you don’t know….

<from my phone script> Proposition 34 is a November ballot initiative that would replace the death penalty in California with life in prison without the possibility of parole. It would save the state $130 million per year and eliminate the risk of ever executing an innocent person while still keeping violent offenders behind bars forever. <end phone script>

The script goes on, though it’s still a bit unfathomable to me that it needs to (although, interesting fact, $100 million of those dollars will go directly to local law enforcement agencies for the express purpose of solving more rapes and murders every year).

Yesterday, an Orange County judge, who had proudly termed himself the “hanging judge,” passed away at the age of 89. During his time on the bench, he sentenced 9 people to death row. Not one of them has been executed. In fact, of the 800 people who have been sentenced to death row in California over the past 35 years, only 13 have actually been executed. Many more have died of old age. And still more remain in expensive, segregated death row housing.

In his retirement, this judge became a death penalty detractor, because he saw just how deeply and irreparably the system is broken. He supported Prop 34. And so do these people: 

  • Ron Briggs, the lead proponent of California’s 1978 death penalty initiative
  • Don Heller, the attorney who wrote California’s death penalty law
  • Jeanne Woodford, a former warden who carried out four executions herself
  • An increasing number of victims families (more than 400 currently)
  • The California Democratic Party
  • The California Nurses Association
  • The League of Women Voters

All of this information is widely available, but if I learned anything from the 100+ calls I made yesterday it was that a lot of people don’t even know that this proposition exists, which is the point of this post. (Also some pats on my own back for caring about something).

I don’t generally get cheesy and patriotic, but there is a very real possibility that we the people, meaning the voters, the citizen, just the regular old people like me and you and whoever, could end the death penalty in California in November. And I am extremely proud to be a part of the effort. Even if it means I have to call people on the phone.

Thanks for your comments. At this moment, the fate of my clients and my life is in the voter’s hands. You see, I am one of those people who make my living because of the Death Penalty. I do the research that helps defense attorneys present mitigating evidence to argue for a sentence less than death for their DP clients. If the death penalty prop passes, I will be unemployed. I may lose my house, my savings and my health insurance. Still, I voted against the death penalty. I have also spoken out against it since I’ve been doing this work. I can’t in conscience do anything less, even if it means I may lose my livelihood.
As someone intimately connected with the issues of the death penalty, I have to tell you … if you could walk for one mile in the shoes of most of my clients, you too would vote to repeal the death penalty. Too many innocent people are in prison, including Death Row, because of shoddy police work, incompetent attorneys, corrupt judges, flawed evidence, “eye-witness” identification, tainted/coerced testimony, and much more. If you believe the “system” is fair and unbiased, you are living in Oz, not Los Angeles. I’m not saying the criminal justice system is racist; I’m saying it’s so much WORSE than racist. It’s horribly, terribly broken.
I must also comment on some truly erroneous statements I’ve read here and hear constantly about prison and prisoners. These statements take on the aura of truth because they get repeated so frequently and those who repeat and believe them don’t bother to do the independent research. To find out the facts, don’t read sources that are pushing an opinion; read the scholarly research in journals, and even on the CDCR (California Dept of Corrections) website. For example, you will find that the prisoners who recidivate the LEAST are those who have committed the most serious crimes, like murder. By contrast, those who have committed property crimes and drug crimes are most likely to recidivate. These are the people who have fixed term sentences, who do not have to face a parole board. They will simply be released at the end of their term and, because they have had NO rehabilitation in prison, they will likely commit those same crimes again.
By contrast, the “lifers” who have term-to-life sentences, and who are constantly denied parole by the Board of Parole Hearings, are least likely to recidivate, by a fraction of the rate of all others. “Lifers” are of negligible threat to the public safety, yet are the ones most irrationally scapegoated. Moreover, prison is not a comfortable, cushy place. It’s overcrowded. Prisoners spend most of the time in their cells, with nothing to do but perhaps watch TV if they have one. If you think that’s a great fate, then you haven’t been locked in your guest bathroom with a TV and a stinky, snoring, profanity-spewing guy for 10 years. The food is really bad. There is little or no medical care. No education, no recreation. And, to top it off, you’re always in danger of violence (sexual and otherwise) from inmates and on-edge staff people whose stressful jobs no one would want.
Any victim of crime has a good reason to be angry at the individual who victimized them, and even to wish for personal revenge. But a state system of revenge does not give the crime victim that satisfaction; in fact, the hate that comes out of some “crime victims” groups shows that the worst effect of being a crime victim is probably not the loss of money, health, or even their beloved family member, but rather the loss of trust, innocence and forgiveness. This is the very worst of injuries, the injury to the heart, mind and soul. Yes, I believe that punishment for crime is necessary, especially for the worst crimes, but punishment must have some limit. Otherwise, we become not punishers, but torturers. Furthermore, the worst crimes are not just physical violence. What about economic violence? Emotional violence? Why aren’t some of the Wall Street dudes who profited from the suffering of millions of citizens in prison today?
It seems obvious that chronic poverty drives crime by creating hopelessness, limiting opportunity, isolating communities, stressing the psyche to the point of creating mental illness and self-medication through substance abuse, driving desperate competition for scarce resources and, finally, generating the feeling of being disrespected, rejected and cast-out. Shamed people become violent people because violence becomes the last resort to gain some version of “respect.” Moreover, this damage is passed on, generation after generation.
I predict that a lot of those who are now voicing the harshest and least forgiving attitudes toward Death Row prisoners and prisoners in general will one day find themselves needing the compassion, forgiveness and second-chances that they are now denying others. Angry, vengeful people, in my experience, tend to attract harsh experiences. What goes around does come around. But when we pause to be HUMAN, we can mitigate against each other’s suffering, and that can’t ever be a bad thing. Because, really now … if we actually enjoy someone’s suffering, what does that make us? For me, violence is a wrong, and every kind of violence is equally wrong. But evil? To me, between violence and hate, hate is closer to evil. But even hate can be healed. When you vote against the death penalty next week, consider that it is not an entirely unselfish act. Bank this act of compassion against the day that you might need someone to invest that compassion in you.