Over 3,000 human beings are waiting to die in prisons across the United States today. Most of the developed world long ago turned its back on this barbaric practice, yet America clings on to the death penalty – even though it doesn't bring down crime, and it kills innocent people.
But now, Californians have the chance stop this happening in their state. Thanks to more than 500,000 citizens who signed a petition to abolish the death penalty, the decision will be put to voters on 6 November, the same day as the presidential election.
Just getting the vote on the ballot was a big win for campaigners. But ending this barbaric law will take a lot more work.
Torment, for victims and accused
Today, 723 inmates languish on death row in California. But in the Golden State, as in others, death row is more like purgatory than a queue for execution: only 13 convicted murderers have been put to death since the supreme court reinstated the penalty in 1978. Instead, prisoners – and victims of crime – face decades of psychological torment as expensive legal battles stretch on.
The system is a disgrace for all sorts of reasons – not least because death row inmates are disproportionately poor, black, and unable to afford decent lawyers. There's also the problem of innocence. Between 2000 and 2011, across the US, an average of five people on death row were exonerated every year; and the number of cases where new DNA or other evidence has come to light has risen sharply.
Needless to say, you can't push for a retrial on the basis of new DNA evidence if you're dead.
It just doesn't add up
The death penalty's continued existence also says some pretty worrying things about the nation's priorities. Nearly 13 million Americans are jobless, and one in 15 lives below the poverty line. Yet California spends some $184m every year to keep the death penalty up and running.
It's a sick pattern repeated across the country. Florida spends $24m per death row inmate – more than 18 times the cost of keeping a convicted murderer in prison for 50 years. In Kansas, just seeking the death penalty adds 70% to the cost of a trial.
Are vengeance, or the faulty claims about deterrent value, really more important than jobs, education, healthcare and dealing with poverty?
Time for everyone to wake up
The good news is that citizens and lawmakers are finally waking up: Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey have all outlawed the death penalty in recent years, Connecticut legislators have just voted to do the same, and many more states have declared a moratorium or are considering repealing the law. (See this map from the Economist.)
But the battle is far from won. In Texas, executions continue apace. During his presidential nomination campaign, Governor Rick Perry actually boasted that he had presided over 234 executions: it was seen as a vote winner with his base.
Learn more: People's attitudes will only change once they start to recognise the human beings behind the statistics. So wherever you live, take time to meet Linda Carty, a grandmother who has been on death row in Texas for more than 10 years, and share her story with everyone you know.