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California Voters to Decide Whether to Close Death Row

Voters in California, with more prisoners on death row than any other U.S. state, will decide in November whether to repeal use of capital punishment 40 years after it was approved by two-thirds of the electorate.

Advocates of the initiative, which would change the maximum criminal penalty from execution to life in prison without the possibility of parole, gathered enough signatures to place the issue on the ballot, Secretary of State Debra Bowen said yesterday in a statement.

If approved, California would join 17 states that exclude the practice including New York, New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois, all of which have abolished the death penalty since 2007. In November, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber said he would no longer allow executions during his term because of moral objections. A bill to eliminate capital punishment has been approved by both legislative chambers in Connecticut.

“It’s hard to overstate the significance of this decision,” said Jeanne Woodford, the legal sponsor of the initiative, who oversaw executions as warden of San Quentin State Prison. “California voters will, for the first time, be able to vote on replacing the death penalty.”

California had 723 inmates on death row as of Jan. 1, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. While two-thirds of voters approved reintroduction of the death penalty in 1972, the state hasn’t conducted executions since 2006, when a federal judge halted them over concerns that the procedure, using lethal injection, was unconstitutionally cruel.

Executions Falling

Nationally, the number of executions dropped to 43 last year from a peak of 98 in 1999, according to the Washington-based death penalty center.

California has spent about $4 billion on the punishment since voters expanded the scope of the death penalty in 1978, according to a Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review study last year by Judge Arthur Alarcón, of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco, and Professor Paula Mitchell.

The nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office, in a report on the proposed ballot measure in October, concluded that repealing the death penalty would save the state and counties in the “high tens of millions of dollars” a year.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death-penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, said reports of significant savings are speculative and don’t factor in costs such as health care for aging inmates.

“The savings they are promising are not real,” Scheidegger said in a telephone interview April 19. “The people of California have consistently supported the death penalty.”

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