Incarceration Nation

The SAFE California Act

It is a Matter of Innocence, Not Economics

By Jarvis Jay Masters

Several prisoners on California’s Death Row have expressed serious criticisms of the SAFE California anti-death penalty initiative that will be up for a vote on the November 2012 ballot. In the last issue of Socialist Viewpoint we printed an essay by Kevin Cooper entitled “No Thank You,” criticizing the act. Cooper came within three-and-one-half hours of being executed in San Quentin Prison, but received a last minute reprieve. He remains on death row. California has a moratorium on executing prisoners due to legal challenges to the three-drug injection method of execution as “cruel and unusual” torturous punishment.

In this issue we present two more critiques of the initiative from prisoners on San Quentin’s death row, Jarvis Jay Masters and Tim Young. Readers opposed to the death penalty are invited to participate in this debate. —Socialist Viewpoint

Please DON’T vote in favor of “The SAFE California Act” to end the State’s death penalty. 

You need to know that your vote for this act would throw away the key for all the innocent men and women on death row, and instead, sentence all prisoners on death row to spend the rest of their lives in prison without the possibility of parole and without effective legal representation.1 

The way I see it is, behind the scenes, the “Act” has been to cast Jeannie Woodford, former prison guard, former San Quentin warden, former Director of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and current Director of Death Penalty Focus, an organization striving to abolish the death penalty, to build support for this “Act” from, among others, the prison guards union. 

I am not the first to say how deeply troubling it is to see this initiative being advocated for by a woman who presided over state executions without ever offering an OPEN apology. 

There is something even more troubling about depending on a flawed prison system and it’s employees to go ahead and make this decision, when the men and women at risk have never been asked for our two cents about matters that affect our life and death. 

Despite what I have been told, I believe this “SAFE California Act” will remove the statutory appeals guaranteed under the present law. This new law will assume that all those on death row are uniformly guilty. Don’t I matter? What about the innocent men and women presently on death row, these same men and women who will no longer have the effective legal means to a genuine appeal? 

If having effective legal representation has anything to do with the State’s money crunch, then, make no mistake, innocent human beings will die in prison. If California really wants to save the State money, here’s an idea: Why not eliminate the “vengeance sentencing” of the Three Strikes Law. Eliminating Three Strikes would close prisons and save millions of dollars every year.

Those supporting the SAFE California Act on economic grounds, say that eliminating the death penalty will save money for a cash-strapped State, I have never heard them mention the moral and ethical issues of putting a fellow human being to death. You would not be casting a real vote to answer the prayers of prisoners by ending capital punishment. Let us first be human beings. 

No! For myself and others here on San Quentin’s death row, the way we will eliminate the death penalty is to look at what other states have done, and by working to provide more effective legal representation to show and prove there are more and more innocent men and women on death row. 

It is a fact that, again and again, the greater public and its legislators have changed their opinions about the death penalty after discovering innocent people who were condemned to death. 

Why not start proving the cases of innocent people and free them to tell their truths, tell of their years of horror, and then let the State decide? Do you morally want to have a legal system that will put to death human beings, even the innocent ones? 

Jarvis Jay Masters has been incarcerated for 32 years, and is the author of Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row and That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row.

—June 21, 2012

1 Innocence Project Case Profiles

There have been 292 post-conviction DNA exonerations in United States history. These stories are becoming more familiar as more innocent people gain their freedom through postconviction testing. They are not proof, however, that our system is righting itself.
The common themes that run through these cases—from global problems like poverty and racial issues to criminal justice issues like eyewitness misidentification, invalid or improper forensic science, overzealous police and prosecutors and inept defense counsel—cannot be ignored and continue to plague our criminal justice system. Seventeen people had been sentenced to death before DNA proved their innocence and led to their release. The average sentence served by DNA exonerees has been 13 years. About 70 percent of those exonerated by DNA testing are members of minority groups. In almost 40 percent of DNA exoneration cases, the actual perpetrator has been identified by DNA testing. Exonerations have been won in 35 states and Washington, D.C.