California and the Death Penalty

The nation’s most populous state has been a trailblazer in justice reform, but it lags behind others in its failure to abolish capital punishment. Gavin Newsom, sworn in this month as the new governor, could change that, writes a reform advocate.

On Christmas Eve, outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown reduced the prison sentences of 131 people in California and pardoned another 143, giving them a far better chance to reintegrate into society.

The move tops Brown’s already record-breaking number of pardons and commutations and other policy changes he championed, all of which were aimed at rethinking a justice system that Americans widely agree needs an overhaul.

Indeed, there is a growing recognition across the country that mass incarceration and racial inequity in the justice system are among the most urgent issues of our time. Brown should be applauded for the steps he took to address these issues.

But the governor missed a critical piece by leaving the death penalty off his Christmas list.

In doing so, he sent a clear signal that California lags behind the national trend to end capital punishment. Now it’s up to his successor, Gov. Gavin Newsom, to finish the job.

Brown’s inaction is confusing because the death penalty is already on its last legs across the country. Eleven states have either ended or suspended the death penalty in the last 11 years. The most recent, Washington State, came just months ago when its highest court ruled that racial bias was so ingrained in the process as to make it unconstitutional.

States from New Hampshire to Louisiana to Utah have taken significant strides, and 2019 is shaping up to be another big year for states seeking to end this antiquated practice.

On the other hand, California has the largest death row in the nation—nearly 740 people, more than three times the size of Texas’ death row. California’s death row ballooned in much the same way that its prisons did, during an era when the death penalty was on the rise.

Many of the people awaiting execution would likely not be sentenced to death today, yet they have languished on death row for decades. Many were young people at the time of their crimes and are now aging, but desperate for any opportunity at rehabilitation. The death penalty offers nothing of the kind.

Instead it represents the lack of hope or opportunity for rehabilitation that Brown celebrated in granting his commutations last month.

Like Gov. Brown, I have met or heard from many people who have committed violence and later turned their lives around. What has become clear to me again and again is that most people don’t commit violence unless they’ve been exposed to it before – as victims, as witnesses, and so often as children. California’s death row is rife with such people.

The Death Penalty Information Center just published its 2018 report and found that 72 percent of those executed this year suffered a dramatic impairment – significant evidence of a mental illness; some element of brain damage or disability; or chronic, serious childhood trauma.

Those on death row are often poor or people of color and have faced the most daunting challenges. We marshal all of society’s resources to kill them after they harmed someone else, but what if we had dedicated just a fraction of the effort to prevent the violence in the first place?

Trauma, Chronic Poverty and Racism

Trauma begets trauma, and communities plagued by chronic poverty, racism, police violence, and mass incarceration experience that trauma at the highest levels. The communities most harmed by violence are very often the same that get swept into the criminal justice system. One of the cruelest aspects of executions – and the way we respond to violence overall – is how we betray our most vulnerable people.

We have all the tools we need to address their trauma and start breaking the cycle of violence and retribution that has become our nation’s shameful legacy.

Gov. Brown took powerful strides to right those wrongs throughout his two most recent terms.

“From my background, I do believe that redemption is an essential element of being human,” Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle recently.

There was wisdom and humanity in these most recent commutations. That reasoning should be extended to people who receive death sentences. Gov. Newsom now has an extraordinary opportunity.

Shari Silberstein

Shari Silberstein

By commuting the sentences of these 740 women and men, or imposing a moratorium on executing them, he can create a new legacy that pulls California and the U.S. ever closer to a new era for justice.

Additional Reading: Jerry Brown’s Criminal Justice Legacy: ‘It’s Called Hope’

Shari Silberstein is executive director of Equal Justice USA, a national leader in the movement to transform the justice system from one that harms to one that heals. She welcomes comments from readers.


Jerry Brown’s Criminal Justice Legacy: ‘It’s Called Hope’

The California governor, whose final term ends in January, changed from a tough-on-crime advocate in the 1970s to a reform advocate who concluded much of the old thinking on crime and punishment had been wrong. Former state corrections secretary Jeanne Woodford said his “refreshing” transformation was guided by criminologists’ evidence-based research.

When California Gov. Jerry Brown’s final term ends next week, he will leave behind a state criminal justice system infused with a new commitment to second chances, a shift away from an era in which tens of thousands were imprisoned with little opportunity to turn their lives around, the Los Angeles Times reports.

“It’s called hope,” Brown told the newspaper. “One hundred fifty thousand young men with zero hope bolsters the gangs, leads to despair, leads to violence and makes the prisons very dangerous.

Many of them, the majority, will get out anyway. And they’ll get out as very wounded human beings.” The governor’s attempt to unwind the old approach contrasts with his legacy from the 1970s. No governor did more to launch the tough-on-crime era, including a seminal law four decades ago that paved the way for strict sentences, even for nonviolent crimes.

See Also: Has Jerry Brown Changed His Views on Crime?

Brown’s decision to change course was driven by legal mandates as much as morality. A key was his reliance on research and data that concluded much of the old thinking on crime and punishment had been wrong.

“He’s really followed the science of criminal justice,” said Jeanne Woodford, a former state corrections secretary. “That’s very refreshing, as opposed to people making decisions based on their worst fears.” Brown supported legislation or ballot measures that downgraded drug crimes, offered some inmates new opportunities for parole and prevented or limited the detention of children and teenagers.

He helped craft a sweeping plan to grant judges greater discretion over California’s bail system. He appointed hundreds of jurists who share his vision of considering options other than lengthy incarceration.

To some, the four-term governor made things worse when taking office in 2011. Critics cite an uptick in violent and property crimes in some communities as evidence that leniency won’t work.

Among  the signature accomplishments during Brown’s term was “justice realignment” –a move to reduce state prison populations, and reform of the state’s “three-strikes” law.