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Capital Intensive 

Is small-donor activism the difference in California's death penalty debate?

click to enlarge Death Row No More A guard walks a cell block in San Quentin State Prison, which used to house the state's death chamber. - TOM GOGOLA
  • Tom Gogola
  • Death Row No More A guard walks a cell block in San Quentin State Prison, which used to house the state's death chamber.

Following Gov. Gavin Newsom's moratorium on capital punishment via executive fiat in March, will California voters end the death penalty in 2020? New research from the National Institute on Money in Politics indicates that, absent a robust grassroots anti–death penalty effort, it could be a tough sell.

That's owing to the power and influence—and infrastructure—of statewide unions such as the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, whose small-donor efforts in 2016 helped turn the public opinion tables on a capital punishment proposition twofer on that ballot that year.

Proposition 62 would have ended the death penalty outright; while pro-death penalty Proposition 66 sought to limit appeals in capital cases.

The institute's research found that even as the state was trending away from support for the death penalty, that pro–death penalty, 62/66-specific committees outspent opponents' committees by $13.5 million to $9.7 million in 2016.

That year, "corrections officers represented the overwhelming majority of small donors rallying behind the death penalty," reports the institute's online research portal, followthemoney.com, adding that "thirty-five public sector unions collectively gave $3.3 million to the pro-death-penalty effort. . . . Almost half ($1.6 million) of the union total came from contributions from CCPOA and the Peace Officers Research Association of California."

Twenty-eight-thousand CCPOA members contributed $287 each to 62/66-specific committees. Small-donor anti-death penalty contributions were not nearly so robust, as the institute reports that "more than four-fifths of the anti-death-penalty total ($7.9 million) came from just 35 donors that gave $50,000 or more."

Contributions from opponents were made by George Soros's Open Society Policy Center ($1 million), Laurene Powell Jobs's Emerson Collective ($600,000), "and more than $450,000 from the Northern California Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union."

The report further noted that Stanford professor Nick McKeown gave $1.5 million, "a 91 percent share of the total from education donors," while Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings contributed $1 million of $1.2 million that came from the TV and film industry. Lastly, it found that five people (including Tom Steyer) "accounted for more than 80 percent of $1.1 million from securities and investment donors."

Small donor contributions from 1,700 opponents totaled $377,000, reports the institute as it recounted the run-up to the 2016 election. That year, opponents contributed an average of $4,750 to the committees; proponents of the death penalty contributed an average of $470.

On Sept. 21, 2016, the Sacramento Bee reported that polling to date indicated that a plurality of voters supported Prop 62, while only a third of voters supported Prop 66. It cited a joint study from the Field Poll and the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, that "found Proposition 62 ahead 48 to 37 percent, with 15 percent of likely voters undecided. Meanwhile, barely a third (35 percent) support Proposition 66, a competing initiative aimed at expediting the death-penalty process. With 42 percent undecided, it appears far less familiar to voters. Twenty-three percent are opposed."

Then came a late-season, CCPOA-led advertising blitz that raised public awareness of the initiatives. "In the end, 53 percent of voters rejected Proposition 62 and 51 percent okayed Proposition 66," notes the institute.

In making his announcement, Newsom highlighted that the death penalty discriminates against minorities and poor people as he called the practice "ineffective, irreversible and immoral." He pledged to give a reprieve to the 737 inmates currently on death row in California, close the death chamber at San Quentin (it was dismantled soon after his announcement), and end a years-long controversy over the state's execution protocols in the bargain.

Most of the 737 condemned in California are men held in one of three death row tiers at San Quentin. Women on death row are incarcerated at a facility in Chowchilla.

Marin Assemblyman Marc Levine has also introduced a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot that would ban the death penalty. In response, proponents have ramped up the grassroots activism in light of the renewed push to end capital punishment in the state.

Families of crime victims and local district attorneys have embarked on a "Victims of Murder Justice Tour." In April, NBC Los Angeles reported that the organization would take the tour to each of the 80 Assembly and 40 Senate districts in the state.

Can opponents match the grassroots activism? Death Penalty Focus, a California non-profit devoted to ending capital punishment in the state through public education and grassroots organizing, was unsurprisingly supportive of Newsom's March move and says it might spur grassroots activism at the local level, should Levine's measure wind up on the ballot in 2020.

"As it stands right now, it's a bit premature to speculate about an initiative in 2020," says David Crawford, senior advocacy director at DPF, "although the moratorium does raise questions about the movement's endgame and whether the moment is right. My organization has many priorities at the moment, including public education, lifting up the voices of impacted communities like victims' families and the wrongfully convicted, fostering new alliances with other criminal justice reform movements, and advocacy efforts at the local level. We rely on 'small' contributions from a broad base of donors to carry out this type of work, along with some funding from foundations and what nonprofits refer to as 'major gifts.' As a nonprofit advocacy organization, gifts of any amount really do make a difference for us."

Meanwhile, it looks as like the most recent polling is favoring capital punishment opponents, by large margins, notes DPF. Even as district attorneys and victims' families have accused Newsom of thwarting the 2016 will of the voters, recent polling suggests that Californians favor life-without-parole over execution in first-degree murder cases, by a two-to-one ratio. A Public Policy Institute of California poll conducted two weeks after Newsom's announcement found that 62 percent of voters "chose life in prison over the death penalty," reported DPF. "The survey found that only 31 percent of adults—38 percent of whom are likely voters—favored the death penalty."

It remains to be seen whether the polling holds, or whether it will matter. "If a future campaign were to take place," says Crawford, "it would need to build on the successful aspects of the last campaign's fundraising strategy, while finding additional ways to raise money. Public figures play a big role in spreading the word about the issues at the heart of a campaign, and perhaps the governor's bold stance might facilitate additional 'small-donor' contributions."

A CNN investigation last week reported that the prison-healthcare giant Wellpath was the defendant in six federal lawsuits in recent years, most involving pregnant inmates.

The local upshot? Following a 2018 mega-merger, the for-profit Wellpath is now the heath-care provider at the Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Center.

The Massachusetts-based company is, in turn, controlled by private-equity firm H.I.G. Capital. CNN reported that Wellpath became the nation's largest jail and prison healthcare provider in November 2018 when H.I.G. Capital merged Correct Care Solutions (which it bought last July) with the Correctional Medical Group Companies (CMGC). One of CMGC's subsidiaries, the California Forensic Medical Group, is the contracted health-care provider at the MADF.

The county signed its latest contract with CFMG in 2017, which paid about $4.6 million a year for the first two years of the contract. The contract runs through 2022, and it appears that Wellfleet is indeed on the scene:

Job sites such as Indeed.com have been reporting for months that Wellpath is hiring for positions at the jail that include mental health professionals, social workers, psychiatric nurses and other positions.

A report in Bloomberg last year reported that the H.I.G. buyout of Correct Care Services was designed to "help the company gain a bigger footprint into the largely untapped behavioral health segment, which include providing mental illness and addictions services."

With the for-profit mega-merger, CNN reported that Wellpath was projected to bring in annual revenues of $1.5 billion from contracts with jails such as Sonoma County's. The county is also in the midst of building a new Behavioral Health Unit for inmates struggling with mental illness.

The Wellpath lawsuits cited by CNN "allege that pregnant women have been subjected to inhumane and dangerous conditions and treatment that in some cases have allegedly led to miscarriages and infant deaths." One of the incidents occurred in Alameda County in 2018, where CFMG had a contract to provide health-care services. The county canceled the contract when a homeless woman allegedly gave birth while in solitary confinement. —Tom Gogola

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