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The Death Penalty Debate: Who Believes What and Why It Matters

by: David Onek

Wed Aug 03, 2011 at 16:11:12 PM PDT


David Onek :: The Death Penalty Debate: Who Believes What and Why It Matters
A recently released study showed that California has spent over $4 billion on prosecuting capital cases since re-instating the death penalty in 1978. While over 800 Californians have been sentenced to the death penalty, just 13 have actually been put to death. A prisoner on death row is much more likely to die from natural causes than from state-sponsored execution.

The costs of continuing California's death penalty are estimated at $5.52 billion over the next 30 years. All this cost - yet with no public safety benefit. There is no evidence the death penalty deters crime. And there is clear evidence that the death penalty disproportionately impacts people of color.

What we do know is that the $5.52 billion that will be spent in the next 30 years if we continue the death penalty could instead be redirected towards efforts that actually keep us safer - more community policing cops on the streets, more services to keep kids in school, and more drug treatment and job training programs to keep the formerly incarcerated from committing new crimes.

For all these reasons, the death penalty matters. And since the discretion to seek, or not seek, this flawed penalty rests solely with our local District Attorney, the candidate we elect to this important office is central to the local death penalty debate.

I am the only candidate running for San Francisco District Attorney to state clearly and unequivocally that I will not seek the death penalty under any circumstances. I have looked at the data - and the data guide my decision to focus our precious time and resources on activities that actually make us safer, not on a flawed and failed policy.

My two opponents in the race have taken a less forthright view on the issue.

George Gascón has stated publically numerous times that he is "not categorically opposed" to the death penalty and would seek the death penalty in "appropriate cases" -- cases that were "so heinous, so evil per se" that the death penalty was warranted. He expounded in a San Francisco Chronicle Op-Ed that "in my three-decade career as a police officer, I have seen some pretty bad cases... And that experience has caused me to be hesitant to say I would never seek the death penalty."

Yet he goes out of his way to suggest to more liberal audiences that he does not "support" the death penalty and that he would not seek it in an increasingly specific number of instances. He told one liberal audience that he would not have asked for the death penalty in the case of the "Night Stalker," who murdered at least 14 people while terrorizing communities in both Northern and Southern California. He told another audience last week that the mass murderer of children in Norway did not merit the death penalty. When asked directly exactly what types of cases he would consider for the death penalty, he has refused to answer. This is not the clarity San Franciscans deserve.

Sharmin Bock also lacks clarity when it comes to the death penalty. She says she is personally against it and implies she will never seek it - but she will not categorically rule it out. Instead, she says she will set up an internal committee to review potential death penalty cases and make a recommendation to her on a case-by-case basis. But if she is truly never going to seek the death penalty, this committee is a meaningless waste of resources. Bock has also publicly expressed concern that the Attorney General will intervene to take cases away from her if she does not go through this process - but that is an extremely unlikely scenario given Attorney General Kamala Harris' record on this issue.

Why does this matter?

It matters because the death penalty matters. And it is vital to elect a DA in San Francisco who will unequivocally end this wasteful practice at home and thus have the moral authority to lead the fight to end the death penalty statewide and nationwide. And it matters because we need candidates for office to give us clear and consistent answers to serious questions like the death penalty - not responses so finely parsed we have trouble understanding just where they stand.

Our criminal justice system is severely broken - it has nearly bankrupted the state while failing to keep communities safe. Fixing this system won't be easy. I've spent my entire career studying, shaping and implementing criminal justice reform, and I know exactly how hard it is going to be.

I also know this process starts with building trust in every community. And building the kind of trust it takes to make real change starts with giving a clear and forthright answer on an issue as important as the death penalty.

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