A story that has stuck with me over the decades comes from a school civics text. A criminal came into the town of Milwaukee and killed a man. He was arrested in the morning, tried in the afternoon, and that evening was already serving his life sentence in the State Penitentiary. Sadder but wiser, he expressed admiration for Milwaukee as a place which stood up for justice.
This brand of swift and decisive “frontier justice” in homicide cases is a topic of stories not only in Wisconsin, which
abolished the death penalty in 1853, but also in Michigan, famed as the first English-speaking jurisdiction to abolish it for murder in 1846 (the death penalty for treason technically remained on the books until 1963). Society’s message was clear: take a human life through premeditated murder, and you’ll spend the rest of your natural life in prison.
While we may be unable in 21st-century California literally to achieve same-day justice in homicide cases, the SAFE California Initiative will provide the same kind of swift, certain, and nonlethal justice that the old stories from places such as Michigan and Wisconsin celebrate. And by comparison to the decades-long ordeal often inflicted by our broken death penalty system on families of murder victims and condemned prisoners alike as well as society at large, the progress of a life without parole case from arrest to trial to permanent imprisonment of the murderer may seem almost as fast as in those stories of a century or more ago.
One feature of the initiative may recall another phrase of old: “life at hard labor.” Under the SAFE California Act, prisoners sentenced to life without parole will be required to perform labor and make restitution to the Victims’ Services fund. Not only will they live and die in prison, but they will be held accountable both to the families of their victims, and to society at large as the victim of every assault on the sanctity of human life.
It would be naive, of course, to think that society can devise any punishment that will deter all murders. All too often, for example, we hear of mass shootings where the offender commits suicide with the final shot, or has a history of suicide attempts; so the death penalty hardly seems to dissuade them. However, if there is an effective deterrent to make some potential killers think twice, it might be life and death in prison plus labor and restitution to society. This is especially true if word gets out on the street that the law is really being enforced.
The SAFE California Act makes a commitment to help get that word out by directing $100 million over the period 2012-2016 to a SAFE California Fund to improve the rates at which homicide and rape cases are solved and the perpetrators arrested and punished. Getting killers off the streets not only directly prevents more homicides or other violent crimes by these same perpetrators, but indeed sends a message of deterrence to others.
Currently, with 46% of homicides and 56% of rapes going unsolved, that message is not so clear. What we need to do is to establish very clearly, in practice as well as theory, that killing one’s victim in the course of a robbery or sexual assault — in order to prevent them from making an identification or testifying, for example — is a recipe for swift detection and a sentence of life, labor, and death in prison.
The SAFE California Fund is a first giant step at making swift and certain punishment a reality. As the Attorney General’s summary of the initiative very cautiously estimates, abolishing our broken death penalty system will produce savings “in the high tens of millions of dollars annually,” with the Fund thus representing only a relatively small portion of these savings. A recent study by federal Ninth Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon and Loyola Law School Professor Paula Mitchell suggests savings of $184 million a year, greater than the total amount of the Fund over the full four-year period! The Legislature, of course, will be free to apply more of these savings to local law enforcement and also to crime prevention strategies such as mental health interventions, while retaining needed flexibility at a time of budgetary crisis.
While swift and certain justice is always an ideal to be striven for, the old stories remind us that society can respond to the tragedy of murder in a clear, decisive, and nonlethal way. The SAFE California Act is an invitation to clear the decks of a failed death penalty policy, roll up our sleeves, and give our police the support that they need as we move together toward a safer and saner future.