Propositions on the November 8, 2016 Ballot

Proposition 66

November 8, 2016

Death Penalty. Procedures. Initiative Statute.

Yes/No Statement

A YES vote on this measure means: Court procedures for legal challenges to death sentences would be subject to various changes, such as time limits on those challenges and revised rules to increase the number of available attorneys for those challenges. Condemned inmates could be housed at any state prison.

A NO vote on this measure means: There would be no changes to the state’s current court procedures for legal challenges to death sentences. The state would still be limited to housing condemned inmates only at certain state prisons.

Summary of Legislative Analyst’s Estimate of Net State and Local Government Fiscal Impact

  • Unknown ongoing fiscal impact on state court costs for processing legal challenges to death sentences.
  • Near-term increases in state court costs—potentially in the tens of millions of dollars annually—due to an acceleration of spending to address new time lines on legal challenges to death sentences. Savings of similar amounts in future years.
  • Potential state prison savings that could be in the tens of millions of dollars annually.

Ballot Label

Fiscal Impact: Unknown ongoing impact on state court costs for processing legal challenges to death sentences. Potential prison savings in the tens of millions of dollars annually.

Background

Death Sentences

First degree murder is generally defined as the unlawful killing of a human being that (1) is deliberate and premeditated or (2) takes place while certain other crimes are committed, such as kidnapping. It is punishable by a life sentence in state prison with the possibility of being released by the state parole board after a minimum of 25 years. However, current state law makes first degree murder punishable by death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole when “special circumstances” of the crime have been charged and proven in court. Existing state law identifies a number of special circumstances that can be charged, such as in cases when the murder was carried out for financial gain or when more than one murder was committed. In addition to first degree murder, state law also specifies a few other crimes, such as treason against the state of California, that can also be punished by death. Since the current death penalty law was enacted in California in 1978, 930 individuals have received a death sentence. In recent years, an average of about 20 individuals annually have received death sentences.

Legal Challenges to Death Sentences

Two Ways to Challenge Death Sentences. Following a death sentence, defendants can challenge the sentence in two ways:

  • Direct Appeals. Under current state law, death penalty verdicts are automatically appealed to the California Supreme Court. In these “direct appeals,” the defendants’ attorneys argue that violations of state law or federal constitutional law took place during the trial, such as evidence improperly being included or excluded from the trial. These direct appeals focus on the records of the court proceedings that resulted in the defendant receiving a death sentence. If the California Supreme Court confirms the conviction and death sentence, the defendant can ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.
  • Habeas Corpus Petitions. In addition to direct appeals, death penalty cases ordinarily involve extensive legal challenges—first in the California Supreme Court and then in federal courts. These challenges, which are commonly referred to as “habeas corpus” petitions, involve factors of the case that are different from those considered in direct appeals. Examples of such factors include claims that (1) the defendant’s attorney was ineffective or (2) if the jury had been aware of additional information (such as biological, psychological, or social factors faced by the defendant), it would not have sentenced the defendant to death.

Attorneys Appointed to Represent Condemned Inmates in Legal Challenges. The California Supreme Court appoints attorneys to represent individuals who have been sentenced to death but cannot afford legal representation. These attorneys must meet qualifications established by the Judicial Council (the governing and policymaking body of the judicial branch). Some of these attorneys are employed by state agencies—specifically, the Office of the State Public Defender or the Habeas Corpus Resource Center. The remainder are private attorneys who are paid by the California Supreme Court. Different attorneys generally are appointed to represent individuals in direct appeals and habeas corpus petitions.

State Incurs Legal Challenge Costs. The state pays for the California Supreme Court to hear these legal challenges and for attorneys to represent condemned inmates. The state also pays for the attorneys employed by the state Department of Justice who seek to uphold death sentences while cases are being challenged in the courts. In total, the state currently spends about $55 million annually on the legal challenges to death sentences.

Legal Challenges Can Take a Couple of Decades. Of the 930 individuals who have received a death sentence since 1978, 15 have been executed, 103 have died prior to being executed, 64 have had their sentences reduced by the courts, and 748 are in state prison with death sentences. The vast majority of the 748 condemned inmates are at various stages of the direct appeal or habeas corpus petition process. These legal challenges—measured from when the individual receives a death sentence to when the individual has completed all state and federal legal challenge proceedings—can take a couple of decades to complete in California due to various factors. For example, condemned inmates can spend significant amounts of time waiting for the California Supreme Court to appoint attorneys to represent them. As of April 2016, 49 individuals were waiting for attorneys to be appointed for their direct appeals and 360 individuals were waiting for attorneys to be appointed for their habeas corpus petitions. In addition, condemned inmates can spend a significant amount of time waiting for their cases to be heard by the courts. As of April 2016, an estimated 337 direct appeals and 263 state habeas corpus petitions were pending in the California Supreme Court.

Implementation of the Death Penalty

Housing of Condemned Inmates. Condemned male inmates generally are required to be housed at San Quentin State Prison (on death row), while condemned female inmates are housed at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. The state currently has various security regulations and procedures that result in increased security costs for these inmates. For example, inmates under a death sentence generally are handcuffed and escorted at all times by one or two officers while outside their cells. In addition, unlike most inmates, condemned inmates are currently required to be placed in separate cells.

Executions Currently Halted by Courts. The state uses lethal injection to execute condemned inmates. However, because of different legal issues surrounding the state’s lethal injection procedures, executions have not taken place since 2006. For example, the courts ruled that the state did not follow the administrative procedures specified in the Administrative Procedures Act when it revised its execution regulations in 2010. These procedures require state agencies to engage in certain activities to provide the public with a meaningful opportunity to participate in the process of writing state regulations. Draft lethal injection regulations have been developed and are currently undergoing public review.

Proposal

This measure seeks to shorten the time that the legal challenges to death sentences take. Specifically, it (1) requires that habeas corpus petitions first be heard in the trial courts, (2) places time limits on legal challenges to death sentences, (3) changes the process for appointing attorneys to represent condemned inmates, and (4) makes various other changes. (There is another measure on this ballot—Proposition 62—that also relates to the death penalty. Proposition 62 would eliminate the death penalty for first degree murder.)

Requires Habeas Corpus Petitions First Be Heard in Trial Courts

The measure requires that habeas corpus petitions first be heard in trial courts instead of the California Supreme Court. (Direct appeals would continue to be heard in the California Supreme Court.) Specifically, these habeas corpus petitions would be heard by the judge who handled the original murder trial unless good cause is shown for another judge or court to hear the petition. The measure requires trial courts to explain in writing their decision on each petition, which could be appealed to the Courts of Appeal. The decisions made by the Courts of Appeal could then be appealed to the California Supreme Court. The measure allows the California Supreme Court to transfer any habeas corpus petitions currently pending before it to the trial courts.

Places Time Limits on Legal Challenges to Death Sentences

Requires Completion of Direct Appeal and Habeas Corpus Petition Process Within Five Years. The measure requires that the direct appeal and the habeas corpus petition process be completed within five years of the death sentence. The measure also requires the Judicial Council to revise its rules to help ensure that direct appeals and habeas corpus petitions are completed within this time frame. The five-year requirement would apply to new legal challenges, as well as those currently pending in court. For challenges currently pending, the measure requires that they be completed within five years from when Judicial Council adopts revised rules. If the process takes more than five years, victims or their attorneys could request a court order to address the delay.

Requires Filing of Habeas Corpus Petitions Within One Year of Attorney Appointment. The measure requires that attorneys appointed to represent condemned inmates in habeas corpus petitions file the petition with the trial courts within one year of their appointment. The trial court generally would then have one year to make a decision on the petition. If a petition is not filed within this time period, the trial court must dismiss the petition unless it determines that the defendant is likely either innocent or not eligible for the death sentence.

Places Other Limitations. In order to help meet the above time frames, the measure places other limits on legal challenges to death sentences. For example, the measure does not allow additional habeas corpus petitions to be filed after the first petition is filed, except in those cases where the court finds that the defendant is likely either innocent or not eligible for the death sentence.

Changes Process for Appointing Attorneys

The measure requires the Judicial Council and the California Supreme Court to consider changing the qualifications that attorneys representing condemned inmates must meet. According to the measure, these qualifications should (1) ensure competent representation and (2) expand the number of attorneys that can represent condemned inmates so that legal challenges to death sentences are heard in a timely manner. The measure also requires trial courts—rather than the California Supreme Court—to appoint attorneys for habeas corpus petitions.

In addition, the measure changes how attorneys are appointed for direct appeals under certain circumstances. Currently, the California Supreme Court appoints attorneys from a list of qualified attorneys it maintains. Under the measure, certain attorneys could also be appointed from the lists of attorneys maintained by the Courts of Appeal for non-death penalty cases. Specifically, those attorneys who (1) are qualified for appointment to the most serious non-death penalty appeals and (2) meet the qualifications adopted by the Judicial Council for appointment to death penalty cases would be required to accept appointment to direct appeals if they want to remain on the Courts of Appeal’s appointment lists.

Makes Other Changes

Habeas Corpus Resources Center Operations. The measure eliminates the Habeas Corpus Resources Center’s five-member board of directors and requires the California Supreme Court to oversee the center. The measure also requires that the center’s attorneys be paid at the same level as attorneys at the Office of the State Public Defender, as well as limits its legal activities.

Inmate Work and Payments to Victims of Crime Requirements. Current state law generally requires that inmates work while they are in prison. State prison regulations allow for some exceptions to these requirements, such as for inmates who pose too great a security risk to participate in work programs. In addition, inmates may be required by the courts to make payments to victims of crime. Up to 50 percent of any money inmates receive is used to pay these debts. This measure specifies that every person under a sentence of death must work while in state prison, subject to state regulations. Because the measure does not change state regulations, existing prison practices related to inmate work requirements would not necessarily be changed. In addition, the measure requires that 70 percent of any money condemned inmates receive be used to pay any debts owed to victims.

Enforcement of Death Sentence. The measure allows the state to house condemned inmates in any prison. The measure also exempts the state’s execution procedures from the Administrative Procedures Act. In addition, the measure makes various changes regarding the method of execution used by the state. For example, legal challenges to the method could only be heard in the court that imposed the death sentence. In addition, if such challenges were successful, the measure requires the trial court to order a valid method of execution. In cases where federal court orders prevent the state from using a given method of execution, the state prisons would be required to develop a method of execution that meets federal requirements within 90 days. Finally, the measure exempts various health care professionals that assist with executions from certain state laws and disciplinary actions by licensing agencies, if those actions are imposed as a result of assisting with executions.

Fiscal Effects

State Court Costs

Impact on Cost Per Legal Challenge Uncertain. The fiscal impact of the measure on state court-related costs of each legal challenge to a death sentence is uncertain. This is because the actual cost could vary significantly depending on four key factors: (1) the complexity of the legal challenges filed, (2) how state courts address existing and new legal challenges, (3) the availability of attorneys to represent condemned inmates, and (4) whether additional attorneys will be needed to process each legal challenge.

On the one hand, the measure could reduce the cost of each legal challenge. For example, the requirement that each challenge generally be completed in five years, as well as the limits on the number of habeas corpus petitions that can be filed, could result in the filing of fewer, shorter legal documents. Such a change could result in each legal challenge taking less time and state resources to process.

On the other hand, some of the measure’s provisions could increase state costs for each legal challenge. For example, the additional layers of review required for a habeas corpus petition could result in additional time and resources for the courts to process each legal challenge. In addition, there could be additional attorney costs if the state determines that a new attorney must be appointed when a habeas corpus petition ruling by the trial courts is appealed to the Courts of Appeal.

In view of the above, the ongoing annual fiscal impact of the measure on state costs related to legal challenges to death sentences is unknown.

Near-Term Annual Cost Increases From Accelerated Spending on Existing Cases. Regardless of how the measure affects the cost of each legal challenge, the measure would accelerate the amount the state spends on legal challenges to death sentences. This is because the state would incur annual cost increases in the near term to process hundreds of pending legal challenges within the time limits specified in the measure. The state would save similar amounts in future years as some or all of these costs would have otherwise occurred over a much longer term absent this measure. Given the significant number of pending cases that would need to be addressed, the actual amount and duration of these accelerated costs in the near term is unknown. It is possible, however, that such costs could be in the tens of millions of dollars annually for many years.

State Prisons

To the extent that the state changes the way it houses condemned inmates, the measure could result in state prison savings. For example, if male inmates were transferred to other prisons instead of being housed in single cells at San Quentin, it could reduce the cost of housing and supervising these inmates. In addition, to the extent the measure resulted in additional executions that reduced the number of condemned inmates, the state would also experience additional savings. In total, such savings could potentially reach the tens of millions of dollars annually.

Other Fiscal Effects

To the extent that the changes in this measure have an effect on the incidence of murder in California or how often prosecutors seek the death penalty in murder trials, the measure could affect state and local government expenditures. The resulting fiscal impact, if any, is unknown and cannot be estimated.