Wait. There’s A Death Penalty in California?

Frank Heinz, NBCDFW.com

News item: Proposition 34, on the November ballot, would eliminate the death penalty in California.

Reaction: There's a death penalty in California?

OK, that reaction is tongue and cheek. Yes, the death penalty is on the books in California. But it's hard to see what the point is -- given how little the state has used it.

Thirteen people have been put to death in California since voters imposed the current death penalty law in 1978. But no one has paid the ultimate price in more than six years.

Your blogger has no moral opposition to the death penalty. Some crimes deserve that penalty. But the penalty is pointless, as least as it's practiced, or not practiced, in California.

What deterrent effect could the death penalty have if it's never used?

And the $185 million in annual costs associated with the death penalty -- because maintaining death row is logistically difficult and expensive -- hardly seem like a priority when schools, higher education and human services are subject to cut after cut.

All that said, polls show Prop 34 with an uphill battle. Majorities of Californians approve of the death penalty, and thus oppose Prop 34's ban on it. But one wonders if public opinion were to change if people understood they were banning something that never gets used anyway.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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