Should the state execute people found guilty of murder with aggravating circumstances, or should the death penalty be replaced by life in prison without possibility of parole?
But the question comes with a lot of emotional triggers for Californians on both sides of the issue. Voters have become increasingly frustrated by the inability of the state to carry out executions, and the huge backlog of convicted murders awaiting execution on death row is a constant torment to victims' families.
Prop. 34 would repeal the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without possibility of parole. As of Oct. 5, there were 726 inmates on death row, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
There's also the high cost the state and counties bear for legal actions associated with the death penalty.
"Having been in criminal justice for over 30 years, most of that time at San Quentin State Prison, I know how much money we have wasted on the death penalty," said Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin who presided over four executions. "It is an illusion in this state. ... Since 1978 we've carried out 13 executions. We've spent $4 billion on the death penalty. The death penalty is far more expensive than if these individuals had life in prison without possibility of parole."
Most polls show Prop. 34 is unlikely to succeed. In a poll released Sept. 27 by the California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University, 39.6 percent of voters support Proposition 34, while 49.3 percent opposed it.
A Sept. 29 USC Dornsife/LA Times poll had Proposition 34 trailing, with only 38 percent support.
Peter DeMarco, a spokesman for No on 34, said the race is likely to get closer as the election nears.
The Proposition 34 effort is well-funded, and its supporters include some of the most influential names in California, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Roman Catholic Bishop Gerald Barnesof the Diocese of San Bernardino.
Prop. 34 would apply retroactively to existing death sentences and directs $100 million to law enforcement agencies to investigate homicide and rape cases, according to the California Secretary of State's Office.
About 900 people have been sentenced to death in California since the current death penalty law was enacted in 1978, according to the death penalty initiative statute. Of those who have not been executed, 83 have died of natural causes or suicide, 75 had their sentences reduced, and 726 are now on death row, most still in appeal.
In 2006, a federal judge halted California executions out of concern the drug injection method might violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Backers of Proposition 34 had raised about $5.6 million as of late September. The No on 34 campaign had $245,000. Prop. 34's opposition includes the district attorneys of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties and many law enforcement groups.
"Death is the appropriate penalty now in our Constitution for certain offenses," L.A. County DA Steve Cooley said. "Baby killers, cop killers and serial killers make up the majority of people on death row. They've committed absolutely atrocious crimes."
Cooley said the death penalty should not be abolished, but should be implemented with executions in some cases that have dragged on through the appeals process for 25 years.
Mike Ramos, DA for San Bernardino County, called Proposition 34 an attack on victims' rights and the families who have lost loved ones by the actions of some of the "most horrendous killers in the nation that we have sitting on death row."
"This is probably, since I've been elected DA in 2003, the most important initiative that we need to oppose," said Ramos.
"We cannot allow 700-plus death row inmates to be placed back into the general population as lifers, so they can enjoy TV, read their magazines, their newspapers, books and visit family members as the wife of a peace officer gets to go down to the cemetery," said Ramos.
But Woodford argues that's not the reality of life in prison without possibility of parole.
"That just doesn't recognize the realities of death row," she said. "On death row the inmates are single celled. They get to stay in their cell and watch TV all day and read the newspapers and magazines that are often sent to them by their legal teams, which they have for life.
"Less than 10 percent of death row inmates work," she said. "They can be out on the exercise yard for up to six hours a day. They're allowed to have visiting seven days a week."
However, inmates serving life without possibility are doubled celled. They are required work five days a week at least six hours a day. They pay restitution to the victims' compensation fund, she said.
"That is holding them accountable in some way," she said.
Carlos Moreno, a former justice of the California Supreme Court, voted to uphold 200 death sentences while on the court and says each of the convicted defendants "richly deserved to die," according to the Yes on 34 website. But he supports Prop. 34, saying "there's no chance California's death penalty can ever be fixed. The millions wasted on this broken system would be much better spent keeping teachers, police and firefighters on their jobs."
But Kermit Alexander, a star football player for UCLA and from 1963 to 1969 with the San Francisco 49ers, takes a more personal view in his opposition to repealing the death penalty. His mother, sister and two nephews, age 8 and 13, were murdered Aug. 31, 1984, in South Los Angeles during a home invasion by members of the Rollin 60's Neighborhood Crips. The intended victims lived two doors away.
"I had four members of my family murdered by a criminal who had gone to the wrong house, as it turned out," Alexander said. "He's been sitting on death row for 30 years. He's exhausted all of his appeals and should have been gone a long time ago.
"I was raised to be accountable for my actions, and the state's not doing that with its citizens," he said. "Those who are accountable for specific murders should be taken care of." They should not be allowed to linger and have appeals and all kind of delays.
"That only tortures the families that they murdered."
Proposition 34YES means: No offenders could be sentenced to death under state law. Offenders who are currently under a sentence of death would be resentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The state would provide a total of $100 million in grants to local law enforcement agencies over the next four years.
NO means: Certain offenders convicted of murder could continue to be sentenced to death. The status of offenders currently under a sentence of death would not change. The state would not be required to provide local law enforcement agencies with additional grant funding.
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