The death penalty in California survived by a narrow vote on November 6, but around the country the signs are clear that capital punishment is slowly on the way out. Even in California, the close defeat of the referendum to repeal the death penalty marks a significant milestone: in a state where almost three-quarters of the people supported the death penalty 30 years ago, now almost half the voters want it replaced. (Video version of this post here.)
Although California's recent vote means the death penalty will remain, the 47% of voters who favored replacing it indicates many Californians have had a change of heart regarding capital punishment. By contrast, the initiative that reinstated the death penalty in 1978 garnered the support of 71% of voters. In 1986, California's Chief Justice, Rose Bird, was removed from office by 67% of voters because she was perceived as blocking the death penalty.
Nationally, support for the death penalty has seen a similar decline. According to a 1994 Gallup Poll, 80% of respondents supported the death penalty, compared to only 61% in 2011. Moreover, when respondents aregiven alternative choices such as life without parole, support for the death penalty falls below 50%.
Around the country, new death sentences dropped to 78 in 2011, representing a dramatic 75% decline since 1996, when 315 individuals were sentenced to death. It was the first time since 1976 that the country produced fewer than 100 death sentences in a single year. Executions also have steadily decreased nationwide, with 43 in 2011 and 46 in 2010, representing a 56% decline since 1999, when there were 98.
"An Encouraging Bump in the Road to Death Penalty Abolition," is Ty Alper's Huffington Post essay. He's a professor at UC Berkeley School of Law.
I'm not a huge fan of quoting kids' political analyses. Most major policy issues are more complicated than the naive and innocent elementary school mind. Most, but not all.
So far, every four years in my 10-year-old daughter's life, the people of the United States elect an inspiring African-American president, and the people of California deliver a demoralizing blow with respect to a marker of our progress as a civilized society. It makes for some confusing post-election emotional sorting.
Four years ago, we celebrated Obama's victory but, as Proposition 8 narrowly prevailed, my then-six-year-old couldn't understand why "women can't marry women and men can't marry men." Last night, we cheered Obama's reelection, but she was incredulous about the loss of Proposition 34, which would have abolished the death penalty in the state with the largest death row. "Don't they know what they are killing people for doing?" she asked (having recently discovered sarcasm).
She's right, of course, on both counts. You don't have to be smarter than a fifth grader to understand why it is wrong to deny someone the right to marry the partner of his or her choice. And whether we ought to kill people who kill people is controversial, sure, but not all that complicated. The rest of the Western world has figured it out.
When the moral clarity of a child's mind accounts for all the pragmatic concerns we adults can generate, the resolution is a foregone conclusion. The only question is timing.
New American Media posts an interview with Sister Helen Prejean, "Prop 34 'Tilled the Soil' of the Anti-Death Penalty Movement."
California has the largest number of prisoners on Death Row -- a total of 722 people -- which is almost two times as many as those in the next largest state, Texas. Prop. 34, the initiative to repeal the death penalty, was backed by high-profile individuals, from Bill O'Reilly to Alec Baldwin. Yet, it went down in defeat, with 52.7 percent of voters rejecting it. Do you see the defeat as the end of the struggle to end capital punishment in California?
It was very close, and [it was] the first all-out initiative to end capital punishment. But think of the millions of people who were educated by it. It tilled the soil. In three years, opponents will be ready to push for a ban again.
Do you agree with the financial argument against the death penalty made by Prop 34 proponents, that the state can’t afford to house Death Row inmates, given how much it costs for the appeals process?
When it comes to housing Death Row inmates, taxpayers are paying for both sides – the prosecution and the defense. We’re spending millions to put people on Death Row. California has spent $4 billion since capital punishment resumed in 1977. And only 13 inmates have been put to death in that time. The death sentence costs California an additional $184 million a year above and beyond what it would be spending were all its inmates transferred to life without parole, the alternative put forward by Prop. 34.
States that still have the death penalty should put all those billions spent in housing Death Row inmates into law enforcement and solve unsolved crimes.
The Los Angeles Times publishes the editorial, "Crime and punishment in California."
Is California's costly tough-on-crime era over? That's perhaps too optimistic a conclusion to draw from Tuesday's election results. In passing Proposition 36, voters curbed some of the excesses of the state's three-strikes law, but they also rejected a measure to roll back the death penalty and adopted one — Proposition 35 — that broadens the sex offender registry and imposes new life terms for some human trafficking offenses. The state has ceased its relentless march down a road toward ever-tougher sanctions, ever-more-crowded prisons and ever-rising costs. It has not turned the corner, but it's peering around it, trying to get a sense of whether it's safe to proceed.
As for the death penalty, voters kept what they had: a penalty on the books, but virtually no executions in reality. It's a sort of truce between fear and anger on the one side and wisdom and pocketbook on the other. It is the corner on which California nervously stands as it decides which way to go next.
True or false: Killing is wrong.
On Election Day, Californians decided the answer is false, rejecting Proposition 34 which would have replaced the death penalty with a sentence of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. The defeat of Proposition 34 was the greatest civil liberties loss of the election, with Californians deciding to continue executing prisoners despite its high cost, moral qualms about the practice, and inconclusive evidence about its ability to deter crime.
Californians defeated Proposition 34 by a relatively narrow margin, with 52.8 percent voting to keep capital punishment and 47.2 percent voting to abolish it. The numbers represent a shift in voter perceptions on the issue, influenced in part by a growing body of evidence mounting against capital punishment.
Disappointing as the defeat of Proposition 34 may be, supporters hope that the proposition’s near passage will motivate people to more actively support the initiative in the future. I, for one, plan on joining the league of murder victims’ families against capital punishment in California. Having experienced the murder of my only brother, I am ready for the killing to stop, and where better to start than at the highest levels of state.
Earlier coverage from California begins at the link.