12/13/2011 03:10 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2012

Public Safety, Innocence and Cost: Replacing the Death Penalty is California's Only Viable Option

If any good has come out of California's current economic challenges, it has been that pragmatism may have overtaken emotionalism in our public discourse.

With the state's physical and social infrastructure in decline, along with seemingly institutionalized budget deficits, Californians can ill-afford to support nonsensical public policies that are costly and ineffective. The death penalty certainly qualifies as both.

For decades the death penalty has been viewed as the definitive "tough on crime" litmus test. Those opposing capital punishment were considered as being more concerned with the perpetrators of crime than the victims and their unconscionable pain.

Not too long ago, it would have been political suicide to run for any of California's statewide offices in opposition to capital punishment.

But that political landscape has changed.

According to a recent Field poll, when provided the choice between life without parole and capital punishment -- life without parole is preferred 48 percent to 40 percent. In 2000, the same question was asked and 37 percent preferred life without parole.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, there have been 13 executions and the state's death row population has ballooned to roughly 721 -- the nation's largest.

For every reason to support the 13 executions in California since 1978, there are four billion arguments to be opposed. The four billion reasons represent the total cost to execute those 13 individuals, which translates to roughly $300 million per person.

In lieu of these staggering statistics, the "SAFE California Act," is rapidly gathering signatures to qualify on the November 2012 ballot. The "SAFE California Act" would replace California's multibillion-dollar death penalty with life imprisonment without parole.

The act would accomplish three things:

• Replace California's death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

• Require inmates to work and pay restitution to the victims' compensation fund.

• It would allocate $100 million over three years to solve more murders and rapes in California and protect our families.

Support to replace the death penalty with life without parole is based on the simple acronym P.I.C. (Public Safety, Innocence and Cost).

Between 1999-2008, 46 percent of homicides in California went unsolved. Alameda County had the highest rate with 61.5 percent of unsolved murders.

Which benefits California more: an ineffectual death penalty policy or resources going toward local law enforcement to reduce the dramatically high-unsolved murder rate?

Moreover, replacing the death penalty with life without parole eliminates the most ghoulish of outcomes--the execution of an innocent person. Support for the death penalty means there must be an error percentage that one finds acceptable.

Support for the death penalty has traditionally focused on the guilty, those whose crimes are so heinous that their deaths fail to create controversy. By replacing the death penalty with life without parole, it shifts the focus on the innocent. There can be no appeals once the execution has taken place.

The resources wasted on the death penalty would be unacceptable for any other area of government. It is the need for perceived safety that has blinded society to the hemorrhaging of resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

Replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole is to formalize what California already has unofficially. The likelihood of someone dying of illness or age while on death row is greater than receiving a lethal injection. Support for capital punishment represents the last area where California maintains a pre-Enlightenment perspective.

If enhanced public safety, eliminating the possibility of executing the innocence and reducing cost to the state are not enough to support the Safe California Act, consider the argument that its passage would place California on a level of modernity on par with Rwanda, Haiti and Mozambique.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at