By: Mark DiCamillo and Mervin Field, Field Research Corporation
September 25, 2012 - One of the many contentious ballot propositions on the November statewide election ballot is Proposition 34, an initiative that would repeal the state's existing death penalty law and make life in prison the ultimate penalty for a capital crime.
California currently has over 700 people on death row – by far the highest in the nation. However, no inmate here has been put to death in the last five years because of an ongoing legal battle over execution procedures. The delay in California between the time someone is given a death penalty sentence and when an execution actually takes place is now averaging more than 25 years. If passed, Prop. 34 would go into effect the day after the election and would apply retroactively to all those currently on death row.
The latest statewide survey conducted jointly by The Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley and The Field Poll finds sentiment closely divided on Prop. 34, with 42% of likely voters intending to vote Yes to repeal the death penalty and 45% voting No to keep the law in place.
There are big partisan differences in preferences about the initiative. While pluralities of Democrats and independents are in support, Republicans are more one-sided in their opposition.
Differences in preferences across demographic subgroups
Support for repealing the death penalty is strongest among liberals, African-Americans, voters in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area and those who have completed post-graduate work. Opposition is greatest among political conservatives and voters who live in the state's inland counties, especially those in Northern California outside the Bay Area.
Previous Field Poll surveys on the death penalty and life in prison without parole
The Field Poll has made regular periodic opinion measurements for over fifty years on the issue of capital punishment in California. These surveys have consistently found sizable majorities in support of keeping the death penalty as a punishment, especially for very heinous crimes. However, recent Field Polls have found voter opinions changing when the death sentence is compared to the alternative of sentencing a prisoner to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
When asked which penalty they preferred for someone convicted of first degree murder, a 2011 Field Poll found more voters in favor of life in prison without parole (48%) than the death sentence (40%). This represented a reversal in opinions from a similar 2000 poll, when more favored the death penalty over life in prison without parole 44% to 37%.
The same 2011 Field Poll also found that over time Californians have been changing their opinions about two arguments relating to the death penalty, both of which are key points of contention in the Prop. 34 debate. The first concerns the relative costs of the death penalty vs. life in prison without parole. The other relates to whether the sentence of life in prison without parole really meant that a prisoner would never get out of prison.
In 1989 by a greater than two to one majority (56% to 26%) more Californians felt the death penalty was cheaper than life in prison without parole. However, when asked about this again in 2011 voters were much more divided in their opinions, with 43% maintaining that the death penalty was cheaper, and 41% saying sentencing someone to life in prison without parole was cheaper.
The 1989 survey also showed that by a wide 64% to 27% margin voters believed that sentencing someone to life in prison without parole didn't always guarantee that a prisoner wouldn't one day be released. However when this question was asked again in 2011 voters were evenly divided, with 46% believing it didn't always mean the prisoner wouldn't be released, and 45% saying it really meant that prisoners would never get out of prison.
A shifting national climate may also be helping anti-death penalty campaigners in the state. There is a noticeable trend of declining support for capital punishment nationwide. Seventeen states across the U.S. have abolished the death penalty, with New York and Illinois being the most recent.
Past death penalty legislation and court actions
In 1972 the California Supreme Court ruled that death penalty laws were unconstitutional and at the time oversaw the commuting of 107 death sentences. Following that ruling, voters quickly passed Proposition 17, an initiative modifying the state constitution to reinstate capital punishment.
However, in 1976 another California Supreme Court ruling held the statute was unconstitutional, but in 1978 the law was again modified and reinstated. In subsequent years other rulings by the state's High Court continued to block its implementation. In 1986 in a very organized and high profile campaign, voters took action against three of the Supreme Court's more liberal justices, removing Chief Justice Rose Bird and two associate justices, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin, from office, largely because of their rulings on the death penalty. They remain the only such removals of Supreme Court justices in California history.
In 2006 a U.S. District Court Judge blocked the execution of convicted murderers because of complaints about the manner in which lethal injections were being administered. He was later joined by a state judge who ruled that required administrative procedures in the state's execution method had not been followed.
Proponents and Opponents of Prop. 34
Jeanne Woodford, the former warden of San Quentin Prison, is the leader of a coalition that first qualified Prop. 34 for the ballot and is heading an active well-financed campaign to get the measure adopted.
A number of prominent former supporters of the death penalty are also working to overturn it. Attorney Donald Heller, who wrote the 1978 ballot measure that reinstated the death penalty, is campaigning for its repeal. In addition, Gil Garcetti, who as a former Los Angeles District Attorney won death penalty convictions, has recently spoken out about serious flaws in the present death penalty law.
They argue that the way the death penalty is imposed in California is a waste of money, given the many years between the time a convicted criminal is sentenced to death and when the punishment is actually administered. The official analysis by the state's Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance says Prop. 34 "could" provide state and local governments savings in the high tens of millions of dollars each year. Proponents of the incentive estimate the savings to be much more.
The California Peace Officers Research Association is leading the opposition to Prop. 34. Many others in the state's court system – justices, prosecutors and law enforcement people – while recognizing that the existing death penalty law has its flaws, remain against its wholesale repeal. They contend that changes in law and court rulings would speed up the process and significantly reduce costs, and favor amending the law rather than ending it.
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