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California moves ahead with efforts to dismantle the nation's largest death row

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

California this week is moving ahead with efforts to dismantle the largest death row system in America. Under Governor Gavin Newsom, the state on Wednesday began the process of permanently moving condemned inmates - all 671 of them - into the general prison population. NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story. And just as a warning, this piece contains a graphic description of violent crime.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Technically, the death penalty still exists in California. Prosecutors can still seek it. But no one's been put to death in the state in 17 years. And in 2019, Governor Newsom, a Democrat, imposed a moratorium on executions. And he closed the death chamber at San Quentin, the decrepit and still heavily used 19th century prison overlooking San Francisco Bay. Not long after, the state launched a pilot program that voluntarily moved 101 condemned inmates off death row. This week the state moved to make that voluntary depopulation mandatory and permanent. It's in keeping with Newsom's long-held belief, here speaking on the issue last year, that who gets sentenced to death in America has little connection to justice.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: And that's a hell of a thing. The prospect of your ending up on death row has more to do with your wealth and race than it does your guilt or innocence. Think about that for a second. We talk about justice. We preach justice. But as a nation, we don't practice it on death row.

WESTERVELT: After a 45-day public comment period, more death row prisoners will soon start to join regular inmates in seven other prisons in the state with maximum security units. No one will be resentenced in the moves, the corrections department says. Most will now be able to work in prison as clerks, laundry or kitchen helpers, with 70% of their pay going to victim restitution. Anti-capital punishment groups are elated that the state with the largest condemned population is in effect moving to join the 23 other states that have abolished their death rows.

MIKE FARRELL: I'm thrilled. Gavin Newsom is doing a very smart thing and a very positive thing.

WESTERVELT: That's actor Mike Farrell, who chairs the group Death Penalty Focus. Farrell calls capital punishment unjust, barbaric and biased against people of color. While he supports the move, he notes that many death row inmates face serious psychological hurdles.

FARRELL: It's going to be very difficult. There are many people on death row with serious mental issues, and many of them have been in solitary for decades. I think it's a very good move on his part. I just think that it has to be done extraordinarily carefully and very humanely.

WESTERVELT: In recent years, governors in Pennsylvania and Oregon have also imposed moratoriums on the death penalty. In part, California's reforms grew out of passage of 2016's Prop 66, which promised to speed up the time between a death sentence and an execution. As part of that voter-approved measure, the condemned could be moved off death row and into other prisons and required to work. Now death penalty proponents accuse Governor Newsom of exploiting that lesser-known section of Prop 66 for political gain. Michael Rushford is president of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

MICHAEL RUSHFORD: The governor has taken loopholes and nuances in the law and used them to give criminals, the worst criminals, a break. It's unjust. It's unfair. It's stupid.

WESTERVELT: Some victims' families, too, are outraged. Sandra Friend's 8-year-old son Michael Lyons was making his way home from school in Yuba City, Calif., in 1996, when he was abducted and brutalized by serial killer Robert Boyd Rhoades, who dumped the child's body in a riverbed. Friend says she now feels victimized all over again.

SANDRA FRIEND: He tortured Michael for 10 hours. He stabbed him 70 to 80 times. And he was 8 years old - just a little boy, full of life, full of dreams. To hear this news is devastating.

WESTERVELT: Friend says it's outrageous that killers like Rhoades may, in her words, get rewarded with expanded work options, maybe even a cellmate.

FRIEND: For him to be able to leave death row and go into a cushier prison, having - maybe, possibly - a celly (ph), having a job is terrifying because he is the worst of the worst. He is a monster.

WESTERVELT: Permanently emptying California's death row - 650 men at San Quentin and 21 women at a separate facility - is expected to take much of this year. Perhaps the only thing Friend and Farrell agree on is that the process should be methodical and careful, as the Department of Corrections pledges it will be. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.