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State initiative would abolish death penalty

July 7, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
A new push is under way to ban the death penalty in California and close death row. Among those supporting the ban is the original author of California's death penalty law. Lawmakers held a first vote Thursday.

The death penalty is popular among Californians, but those who want to get rid of it think the cost might change minds.

California voters could decide next year the fate of more of than 700 notorious criminals currently locked up in San Quentin's death row.

The California State Assembly Committee on Public Safety approved an initiative slated for November 2012 that would abolish the death penalty in California, making the most severe punishment someone could get is life in prison without parole.

It would apply not only to future crimes but also change the sentences of those already on death row now to permanent imprisonment.

Instead of using moral arguments, death penalty opponents say we simply cannot afford the $184-million-per-year price tag.

"California's death row is the largest and most expensive in the United States, and it is not helping protect our people. It is helping bankrupt us," said state Senator Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley).

A recent report by a federal judge found the death penalty has cost taxpayers $4 billion since it was reinstated in 1978, and only 13 people have been executed since then. No one has been executed since 2006 because lethal injection is being legally challenged.

Lorrain Taylor lost her twin boys in an East Oakland shooting 11 years ago, and she thinks that money could pay for more police officers.

"My boys' cases remain unsolved at the moment because of a lack of funding," said Taylor.

But law enforcement strongly opposes abolishing the death penalty because they believe it's a deterrent and helps save cops' lives.

"If somebody is going to kill a cop, they know they're going to face a death sentence. It's going to protect that police officer," said Tim Yaryan, a lobbyist for the Los Angeles Police Protective League.

Victims rights groups are upset about the possibility of changing the sentences of death-row inmates to something they consider lighter.

"How do we go to them and say that 'Although you thought you received justice, sorry, we're going to take that away now,'" said Dawn Koepke, a lobbyist for Crime Victims United.

Governor Jerry Brown opposes capital punishment. It will be interesting to see what he does if the bill gets to his desk, because in a Field Poll last year, nearly 3 in 5 of Brown's supporters favor the death penalty.

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