Pulling the Plug- DA Gascon Explains Why He Rejects the Death Penalty

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon discussed his support for Proposition 34, which would repeal the death penalty in California, at USF last Tuesday. According to Gascon, a former death penalty advocate, there is no correlation between capital punishment and reduced homicides.

“When I came to San Francisco we were at 100 homicides a year, now we are at 50. When a person kills another human being, they are not thinking of the death penalty. The death penalty does not make us safer and there is no way of bringing back someone who’s dead,” he said.

Natasha Minsker, manager of the Yes on 34 campaign, also joined Gascon to speak in favor of reforming California’s Three Strikes law, which currently enforces state courts to impose 25 years to life sentences on individuals convicted of three or more serious offenses. Serious offenses include murder, rape, and burglary with an intent to commit a robbery or murder.

The proposition reform, also called Proposition 36, would impose the life sentence only when a new felony conviction is serious or violent, and continues to enforce the life sentence penalty if third strike involved a firearm, or if previous charges were for rape, murder, or child molestation.

Proposition 34 will replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole as the maximum punishment for murder in California. This will save California taxpayers $130 million a year. According to Minsker, this proposition will require individuals guilty of murder to work in prison and pay restitution to victims’ families.

That $130 million will make a big difference, Gascon said. “We incarcerate more people than any other nation and, economically, we can’t afford it anymore. We need to put more emphasis on unsolved crimes.” Minsker said that currently 46% of murder and rape crimes goes unsolved in California each year. If Proposition 34 passes, the $130 million annual savings is intended to go toward public safety resources and solving such crimes.

These unsettling statistics are one of the main reasons Gascon and Minsker urge people to vote for the proposition. “If you get nothing else out of this meeting today, please vote,” said Gascon, an advocate of prison reform. “I’ve come to the conclusion that our system is broken.”

Interested in voicing your opinion on the criminal justice system? Gascon suggested looking at the prison realignment referenced in Proposition 36. The proposition states that people who have committed less violent crimes go to county jail with heavy local level supervision, which will reduce incarceration costs. Gascon also suggested checking out the Innocence Project, a public policy organization that aims to bring justice to wrongly convicted individuals through DNA testing and political reform.

He attributed his experience in public safety to his opposition of capital punishment. “I have spent three decades in some of the toughest neighborhoods west of the Mississippi,” said Gascon, who grew up in Bell, California, a Los Angeles suburb, and attended college in Long Beach and Fullerton. “I come from a place where the slim potential of executing an innocent person is enough for me to oppose the death penalty,” he said. Should Proposition 34 pass, current death row inmates will automatically be switched to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Marvin Pascua, a senior politics major, found Gascon’s speech effective. He said: “[In targeting] such areas as cost and moral issues, [the speakers] accomplished their goal of persuading people to vote. I feel that it’s finally time we, as progressive city, try to pass prop 34.”

Politics professor Corey Cook, who moderated the question and answer session, said that the discussion provided even more reasons beyond morality to encourage voting.

“In addition to the philosophical reasons students might have for voting either way on the death penalty abolition or the three strikes amendment, I think the speakers offered numerous pragmatic considerations on cost and utility” he said.

Emily Whetherley, a graduate student studying international development economics, agreed with Cook. “I have been back and forth [about the death penalty] in general,” she said. “I don’t think it’s morally right, and as an economics major, it was interesting to hear the practical reasons and numbers for it.”

Cook is optimistic about the influence that Gascon and Minsker had at the discussion.

“I think the district attorney is a particularly effective spokesperson for these issues, not only as the city’s chief law enforcement officer with a depth of experience, but he’s someone whose own views have evolved,” he said. “I’m not sure it will influence how students will vote, but it might encourage them to get involved and influence others”.

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