Ballot Initiative of the Day: California’s Death-Penalty Ban

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Election Day 2012 will decide more than the next President and control of Congress. State ballot measures across the country will ask voters to weigh in on scores of controversial issues, from Dream Act measures in Maryland to abortion restrictions in Florida. From now until Nov. 6, TIME will spotlight a different ballot issue every day. First up, California’s Proposition 34.

Prop 34 would do three things: replace the death penalty in California with life in prison without parole, create a $100 million fund to investigate rape and murder cases, and require inmates to work and pay restitution to victims or their families.

(PhotosPolitical Photos of the Week, Oct. 12-18)

Supporters of Prop 34 have focused on the financial implications, not the moral ones, of executing prisoners. A Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review study estimates that the death penalty has cost taxpayers $4 billion since 1978, the year California reinstated capital punishment. The state has carried out only 13 executions during that period, and the study estimates that getting rid of the death penalty would save the state $130 million every year. “California is broke, and our death-penalty system is broken beyond repair,” says Jeanne Woodford, a proponent of Prop 34 and former warden of San Quentin State Prison, where she oversaw four executions. “Proposition 34 is justice that works for everyone.”

Opponents argue that the measure would abandon justice for the victims and that death-penalty costs are overestimated. “Prop 34 isn’t about saving money in California or about eliminating judicial mistakes. It’s a political agenda driven by the American Civil Liberties Union to abolish capital punishment based on their views of morality,” argues McGregor Scott, former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California and a co-chair of the No on 34 campaign. “State taxpayers would be on the hook for millions of dollars in extra expenses if Prop 34 were to pass, since death-row inmates would be entitled to housing, food and medical expenses for the rest of their lives.”

Polling indicates that more Californians oppose the measure that support it, but the margin is narrowing. A Sept. 30 USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found voters against Prop 34 51% to 38%, while an Oct. 11 California Business Roundtable/Pepperdine University poll showed them against it 48.1% to 42.9%. As of Oct. 7, supporters had raised $4.6 million, nearly 20 times the amount raised by their opponents.