NEW YORK – An unprecedented decision by California’s Santa Clara County district attorney to reset the death penalty sentences in the county to life in prison sentences has been touted by the local bishop as “an important step toward respecting the sanctity of all human life.”

“As Bishop of San José, I also support and congratulate Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen for his prophetic and exemplary decision to reset the death penalty sentences in our county to life in prison,” said Bishop Oscar Cantú of San José, California. “This decision is an important step toward respecting the sanctity of all human life, which is a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching.”

On April 5, Rosen announced that he converted the sentences of the county’s 15 death row inmates from the death penalty to life in prison with no chance of parole. The 15 inmates are all men.

Rosen cited an “antiquated, racially biased, error-prone” system as the reason he sought to change the sentences. The decision comes about four years after he stopped sentencing people to death; a decision he made after the murder of George Floyd.

“The question is not whether these 15 human beings deserve the death penalty,” Rosen said in a statement. “It’s whether the two million people of Santa Clara County deserve the indignity and ineffectiveness of the death penalty. It’s an antiquated, racially biased, error-prone system that deters nothing and costs us millions of public dollars and our integrity as a community that cherishes justice.”

Capital punishment is legal in California, but has stopped ever since Gov. Gavin Newsoom took over in 2019. The state hasn’t executed someone since 2006. However, the state’s 665 people on death row are the most of any state by a longshot. Texas is second with 313 death row inmates.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, of California’s 665 death row inmates 232 are Black, 220 are white, 177 are Hispanic, 27 are Asian, and 9 are Native American. The Black inmates represent about 35 percent of that total, even though they make up only about 7 percent of California’s population. Of the 665 death row inmates, 644 are men, and 21 are women.

California law allows district attorneys to re-sentence a person if they determine the sentences no longer serve justice, which is how Rosen was able to make this move. He is the first district attorney in California to do so, and based on Crux’s research, the first in the nation, as well.

Rosen acknowledged that the crimes of death row inmates are “horrible,” but said judges and juries of the people should decide where an inmate dies,” and “God should decide when.”

In an April 9 statement on Rosen’s decision, Cantú highlighted the catechism of the Church, which states “the death penalty is inadmissible, because it violates the inviolability and dignity of the person.” He also noted that the Church, while it supports victims and their loved ones, also recognizes the “possibility of conversion and redemption for every soul.”

Cantú said Rosen’s decision aligns with Catholic social teachings’ recognition of the dignity of every human life, and the coherent ethic of life the Church holds across issues related to the unborn, the poor, migrants, the sick, and those in the criminal justice system. He noted that the decision is also a call for society as a whole to move away from the death penalty, and place a focus on restorative justice.

“Prosecutor Rosen’s decision aligns with these values, challenging us to seek alternatives to the death penalty that respect life and human dignity, promote rehabilitation, and foster a safe, more compassionate society,” Cantú said. “It is a call to move away from punitive justice towards restorative justice that heals and rebuilds lives.”

Cantú called on Catholics to support the decision and advocate for other actions that support life.

“Let us support this decision as a community that values every human life. Let us continue to work together toward a more perfect union, building a system of justice that reflects our commitment to life, mercy, and redemption,” Cantú said. “Let us pray for the strength to defend the dignity of all people and for the wisdom to find paths that lead to true justice and peace.”

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