After the devastating loss of a loved one to violent crime, surviving families have many needs. When my own brother, Bob Kerr, was killed in 2003, I had several needs. I needed grief counseling for my family and myself, and I needed to know who killed my brother. I received grief counseling, but not without navigating a complex, bureaucratic system while I was in no shape to do so. I am still waiting, however, to know who killed Bob.
In California, in the last ten years, 46 percent of murders went unsolved. This means over 25,000 murders remain unsolved, and 25,000 other families are waiting, like mine, to know who killed their loved ones. And it means as many as 25,000 killers roam freely on our streets. In the midst of this crisis of unsolved murders, we are also facing the biggest budget crisis in our state's history. While people literally get away with murder, the public safety network in California has unraveled. Police officers in every county in the state are being laid off. And, in every county, we are cutting back on homicide investigations and eliminating victims' services.As thousands of family members wait for justice only to be told there is not enough money to fund an investigation, we watch as hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on the death penalty each year. Death penalty appeals, special housing for death row inmates, additional corrections officers to monitor them, a double-trial system which separates guilt and penalty phases - the costs associated with the death penalty are endless.
Many hear this and ask: Can't we just speed up the execution process? Reports from respected judges and criminal justice experts, both for and against the death penalty, have shown that the only way to make the system move faster while still preventing the execution of an innocent person is to spend even more money.
While I can't speak for any other murder victim family members, I can say that the death penalty does not meet any of my needs, but actually takes resources away from being able to meet my needs. I feel threatened knowing that my brother's killer and thousands of other killers walk the streets. I feel safe when killers are behind bars. Death row inmates are already behind bars - and would remain there if they were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole instead.
I say all of this with the utmost compassion for the family members whose loved ones were the victims of the 714 killers on death row. I know the horror of losing a family member to senseless, cruel and inhumane violence. The effect of my brother's murder in my life has been as significant, as meaningful, and as painful, as anything that has or will ever happen to me. From the center of my soul, I am deeply sorry for their loss.
These families have waited years, and in some cases decades, for an execution. They lived through traumatizing trials and endless appeals, being promised that an execution will bring closure. Yet most families will never see their loved one's killer executed. In reality, a death sentence is equivalent to life without parole with a much higher price tag since most death row inmates die of natural causes. By replacing the death penalty with life without parole, those families will no longer be subjected to years of appeals and we would put an end to the empty promise of an execution that will never come.
No one homicide victim is worth more than another when it comes to justice, but our death penalty system makes it seem so. In the end, the death penalty does more harm than good for all victims. Senate Bill 490 is now moving to the Appropriations Committee on Aug. 17. This bill will put the question of whether the death penalty meets the needs of California taxpayers on the ballot in 2012. It has been 30 years since voters have weighed in on this issue. It is past time to measure public support again.
Judy Kerr works with California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.