Friday, July 8, 2011

CCBA-Backed Bill to Seek End to Death Penalty Advances

Senator Loni Hancock
Legislation supported by the Conference of California Bar Associations to place a moratorium on California's death penalty and place the issue of its retention or repeal before the voters has passed its first test, winning approval of the Assembly's Public Safety Committee (click here for a video of the hearing). The bill now goes to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where it is expected to be heard in mid-August.

SB 490 by Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland), Chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, was "introduced" on June 28 by deleting its original provisions and replacing them with the death penalty-related language (a process known as "gut-and-amend" in the Legislature). The introduction followed the release last month of a report published in the Loyola Law Review by 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School Professor Paula M. Mitchell, which calculated that capital punishment has cost California $4 billion since it was reinstated 34 years ago, yet just 13 inmates have been executed -- none in the past five years. The report recommends that voters be given the opportunity either to tax themselves to cover those costs or to eliminate them by ending capital punishment. (See related LA Times story).

The CCBA, which includes both criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors among its membership, has a long history of supporting resolutions (all sponsored by the Bar Association of San Francisco) calling for a repeal of California's death penalty law, (e.g., 01-01-2010, 06-03-2009, 02-21-2008, 03-06-2007, and 04-03-2003), or a moratorium in its application (09-16-2006 and 03-07-2004). Another resolution (03-04-2011) has been submitted for consideration at the 2011 meeting of the Conference in Long Beach.

The hearing produced informative and passionate testimony on both sides, as detailed in the extensive news coverage (see e.g., articles in the Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle, Vacaville Reporter, and Ventura County Star, and a supporting editorial in the San Jose Mercury-News). Due to time constraints, each side was permitted three primary witnesses. Testimony for all other witnesses was limited to one minute. The CCBA was in the latter witness category; however, the organization's letter in support of the bill was quoted extensively in the official committee analysis of the bill.

The fate of SB 490 is far from certain. Despite the enormous cost and the very real concern about executing the innocent, law enforcement in particular is strongly opposed, contending that its elimination would remove a real deterrent to potential cop-killers. In addition, the death penalty historically has been popular with California voters, so even if a majority of legislators in both houses are willing to put the issue to the voters, there is some question that Governor Brown will sign the bill - and more question still that the voters will approve. Thursday's hearing therefore was just a first step.

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