Governor Newsom's announcement of a death penalty moratorium is a breath of fresh air after decades of stagnation. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in California, 13 inmates have been executed, while close to a hundred died of natural causes. Hundreds spend decades waiting for legal representation in interminable appeals whose focus has gradually shifted from big questions of humanity, discrimination, and innocence, to technicalities and chemicals. The death penalty—not in fantasy, but as actually administered in California—is racially discriminatory, risks tragic miscarriages of justice, and offers no comfort or closure to many victim’s families, as it is essentially an expensive version of life without parole in a dilapidated facility, to the tune of $150 million of taxpayer money annually.
Twice in the last decade did abolitionists attempt to marshal the voters’ common sense to retire the death penalty, and twice they came close, but failed. Public support for capital punishment is at its lowest level since the 1960s; almost half of California voters oppose it, and of those who support it in theory, few are aware of its many flaws, potential for mistakes, and ridiculous price tag. European countries that abolished the death penalty did so when it was still supported by most of their voters; sometimes the government and the legal system needs to take a moral stance when the public is not yet ready to do so.
Our political leaders, who could have dragged California’s extreme punishment into the 21st century, did not deliver. Former Governor Jerry Brown, personally opposed to the death penalty, did not use his last term in office—the perfect opportunity for a courageous, progressive move—to do the right thing. Neither did former Attorney General Kamala Harris, also personally opposed to the death penalty, who appealed a federal judge’s decision that the death penalty in California was unconstitutional due to the delays in its application. While upholding the decision would not have dismantled the death penalty, it would have created a political opportunity for doing so, and could have finally ended the political impasse that rendered California a national leader in so many ecological and social areas and a national embarrassment in its criminal justice system.
Californians should applaud Governor Newsom for doing what he can within the limit of his time in office to move the most draconian piece in the California correctional puzzle to its rightful place—the past. It is thanks to this visionary step that we will be able to shift the obscene expenditure on capital punishment toward what truly benefits Californians—not symbolic, fear-driven clinging to a misguided idea of a functional death row, but education, health care, green industry, and infrastructure. Finally, the sun shines on the darkest corner of California’s correctional landscape.