My passion for voting is a documented fact here at xoJane, but every now and then, my delight in filling out a ballot is filled with something else: pride. Because sometimes, I feel like the electoral process is actually working, and I am so excited about something on the ballot that I want to holler and run around in the street going “YESSSSS! THIS IS HOW WE DO IT, PEOPLE!!!”
This year, that moment came when I got to Proposition 34, which abolishes the death penalty in California, replacing it with life without the possibility of parole.
I’ve always been opposed to the death penalty; I remember having a vigorous argument about it when David Mason was executed in the gas chamber in 1993. It seemed utterly nonsensical, hateful and pointless to me as a child. How would killing people bring anyone back? What justice would possibly be served in having the state murder people because they murdered other people? Retributive justice simply didn’t compute.
When I got older, I retained those ideas, but my understanding of the death penalty became much more nuanced and complex. I learned that keeping prisoners on Death Row was extremely costly, and that the state spent a lot of money on maintaining the death penalty rather than dedicating those funds to other causes, like improving conditions in prisons1, or funding schools, or building roads, or any number of other important things. I resented the waste of funds, and I also got angry with people who argued that the death penalty would be cheaper if we abridged the civil rights of prisoners by limiting their rights to appeal and hastening their trip to the murder chamber.
And I learned about the tremendous inequalities in the “justice system,” the racial bias that taints criminal cases and the huge disparities when it comes to who is arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of crimes. I became troubled by posthumous exonerations and resistance on the parts of governors of other states when it came to commutating sentences for people who were clearly innocent, or at least had convictions accompanied by very murky circumstances.
I started traveling to San Quentin to bear witness when my state murdered people in my name. The prison is a strange place, occupying a prime piece of real estate right on San Francisco bay, hulking menacingly over the landscape, glaring out across the waters to Alcatraz.
It’s always been surprising to me that California has retained the death penalty as long as it has, and it’s a reminder that while it skews blue in elections, it has a deeply conservative streak. And it’s also a reminder that many liberals favor retributive justice, and seem to actively support the prison-industrial complex; prison reform and prisoner rights are not popular subjects in liberal or conservative communities. I see calls for blood in the wake of violent crimes, anger when people who commit terrible actions are not given sentences that are sufficiently harsh in the eyes of observers.
Even when confronted with the problems in the justice system, many people still seem committed to the idea that it works, and just needs some tweaking. Few seem willing to make the connections between some of the problems this culture has with violence, recidivism, crime, and the way the justice system is structured and handled. The goal is not rehabilitation, reform, and opportunities, but punishment. Eye for an eye.
So when I heard that Prop 34 had made it to the ballot, I was ecstatic; voters finally have a chance to speak on whether the death penalty should persist in California, and have an opportunity to set an example for other states that continue to use it. This November, we have a chance to ban an outdated, dysfunctional, cruel, and deeply flawed thing, and it could pave the way to more reforms in the future, to larger conversations about what we want out of the justice system, as citizens as well as victims and those who have been touched by crime.
And that’s why I was proud to vote YES on Proposition 34, and to encourage others to do the same.
Whether or not you share my views on the justice system, whether you believe in a rehabilitative or retributive model, if you live in California, I hope you consider voting yes with me. Because one innocent execution is too many. Because administering the death penalty is economically costly. Because participating in executions is emotionally traumatic and draining for prison staff and medical personnel. Because, as someone who has been affected by violent crime in my own life, I can tell you that murder in retaliation for brutality solves nothing.
More about how to vote! Read Kate Conway on Prop 35! Tune in to @xojanedotcom for live debate and election coverage! Speaking of voting, cast your ballot for me in the Women's Media Center Social Media Award!
1. Speaking of which, I also support Proposition 36, which makes adjustments to California's Three Strikes Law. It will reduce overcrowding in prisons as well as nonsensical mandatory sentencing. Return