A death penalty by any other name

The east block of San Quentin State Prison's death row in San Quentin, Calif. Tuesday, August 16, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Proposition 62, the “Justice That Works Act,” claims to end the death penalty in California. But if it is voted in, it will result in the death of thousands of prisoners. In this case, a death penalty by another name will kill no less effectively, no less cruelly.

Life without the possibility of parole, particularly after the passage of this ballot initiative, will mean exactly what it says. Or as the author of the proposition prosaically framed it: “They grow old in prison and they die in prison.” Death is the expected outcome of the penalty; the death penalty in other words.

There’s more to Prop. 62 that should warrant caution. The language calls for all of us so sentenced, while we’re awaiting our old age and eventual deaths, to be housed in “high-security” prisons. In this state, home to the largest prison system ever found by the U.S. Supreme Court to be violating the cruel and unusual punishments clause of the Constitution, on an industrial scale, that means a lifetime of suffering and deprivation. It also means a virtual blank check being handed over to prison bureaucrats to exact whatever kind of brutality they see fit.

The language of the initiative elevates the expansions of the widely derided “felony murder rule” to the almost unchangeable level of constitutional, voter-approved law. Under the felony murder rule, in a case where the police shoot and kill a suspect, any accomplices, even a driver, can be charged with first-degree murder. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole sentences due to the many contortions of this legal precept.

In case anyone has forgotten, these same arguments were made four years ago, and they failed. The difference this time is added provisions to increase the harshness of the sentence and an even more direct appeal to revenge sentencing. The conclusion of the professional death penalty abolitionists appears to be the only way to rid our state of the stain of capital punishment is to hand the voters a pile of stones to throw at prisoners.

The rest of the industrialized, democratic countries long ago abandoned capital punishment as a violation of basic human rights. They did it by outlawing the death penalty, plain and simple. There was no ugly trade-off. For some reason I can’t quite fathom, our professional death penalty abolitionists settled on an appeasement strategy instead.

Within just the last few years, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that life without the possibility of parole sentences are a violation of human rights and banned them. The interesting thing is out of a continent of roughly 500 million people there turned out to be about 100 prisoners sentenced to the other death penalty. There are more than that in the building I’m assigned to; in California there are close to 5,000, in the U.S., 50,000. And even without these terrible punishments, somehow the Europeans manage to have a far lower murder rate.

Pope Francis, in an address to the International Association of Penal Law in 2014, referred to long life sentences as “hidden death sentences.”

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty does not support Prop. 62, and Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s premier civil rights organizations and committed abolitionists, does not support it either. These are the kind of telling details that should raise everyone’s mental radar.

If Prop. 62 passes, I’m sure the backers will congratulate themselves for ending the death penalty in California. No doubt Mike Farrell, author and prime sponsor, will be given some kind of humanitarian award from his limousine-lefty pals.

The truth on the ground, inside the broken, violent, dysfunctional high-security prisons will be quite a different story. Almost 6,000 men and women will be forced into worse conditions, with severely restricted appeal rights, to grow old and die miserable deaths in prison.

I’ve now served almost 37 years for killing a man in a drunken fistfight when I was 19 years old. I was guilty, and I deserved punishment. I’ve worked hard to become better than my worst moment, and punished I most certainly have been. Anywhere else on this planet, I’d be out of prison by now. But here in California, in our enlightened, advanced state, self-appointed celebrity leaders of civil rights groups want my punishment just getting started. That’s no way to end the death penalty.

If I could, I’d vote no on Prop. 62.

Kenneth E. Hartman is the founder and executive director of The Other Death Penalty Project, a nonprofit organization of prisoners dedicated to ending all forms of the death penalty, including life without the possibility of parole. He can be contacted, indirectly, at kennethehartman@hotmail.com.

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