Poll Finds Stunning Shift on Death Penalty Views; Voters Now Split

death-penaltyFor years the overwhelming majority of voters favored the death penalty, to the point where it became a bit of a political third rail that Democratic politicians would not touch.  They would either proclaim their support for the death penalty, or, such was the case with Attorney Generals Jerry Brown and Kamala Harris, both pledged to uphold the law despite personal opposition to the death penalty.

But that has all changed in recent years.  This morning’s release of the Field Poll shows Proposition 34, which would repeal the state’s existing death penalty law and make life in prison the ultimate penalty for a capital crime, is very narrowly trailing in the polls 45 percent opposed, 42 percent in favor, with a sizable 13 percent still undecided.

There is still a partisan divide, with 50 percent of Democrats favoring the repeal to 37 who oppose it.  Only 23 percent of Republicans favor the repeal, and 65 percent oppose it.  And those with no party preference favor repeal overwhelmingly, 54 to 33.

Mark DiCamillo and Mervin Field note: “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.”

“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 pollsters write.

They add: “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 results of the Field Poll echo the findings last week of the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll, which found that 50% of likely voters prefer a sentence of life in prison without parole to the death penalty, with only 42% choosing the death penalty.

“This poll shows, once again, that more and more California voters are ready to replace our broken and outrageously expensive death penalty system,” said Jeanne Woodford, official proponent for the ballot initiative and a former warden of San Quentin State prison who oversaw four executions.

She added: “Proposition 34 stops the waste of taxpayer dollars on special housing and lifetime legal counsel for death row inmates. It will save California $130 million each year and directs a portion of the savings to law enforcement to solve more crimes.”

The Field Poll notes that there is a sizable shift in the public’s view of capital punishment in California.

Over the last fifty years, surveys by the Field and other polls have found sizable majorities in support of keeping the death penalty as a punishment, especially for very heinous crimes.

However, the pollsters note, “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 pollsters note, “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, Californians found, by a two to one margin, that the death penalty was cheaper than life in prison without parole. However, the pollsters write that, by 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.

Along the same lines, in 1989, “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.”

The pollsters note that a national climate shift is occurring as well, with “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.”

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.

According to the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, Proposition 34 will save California voters $130 million a year. The initiative directs a portion of the money saved, for a three year period, to investigate rape and murder cases. Almost half (46%) of California murders go unsolved every year, while more than half (56%) of rapes remain unsolved.  Proposition 34 will also require that inmates work and pay restitution into the victim’s compensation fund.

The YES on 34 Campaign launched its paid advertising effort with six online video ads and a series of online banner ads. The ads highlight the steep fiscal and social costs of the death penalty in California. They feature three individuals who explain how the death penalty punishes taxpayers:

Jeanne Woodford details the high costs to taxpayers because of the special treatment that death row inmates receive;

Franky Carrillo, an innocent man who was released after 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, talks about the risk of executing an innocent person; and

Lorrain Taylor, whose twin sons were murdered, explains that, while we waste hundreds of millions of dollars on the death penalty, crime labs are shuttered and nearly half of all murders in California go unsolved.

“These are the first ads we are running in our comprehensive campaign to educate voters about who really pays for California’s $4 billion death penalty,” said YES on 34 Campaign Manager Natasha Minsker.  “Many voters are shocked to learn that the death penalty is far more expensive than life in prison without possibility of parole. The truth is that public safety money is now wasted on death row when we need it for education and to prevent crime. Proposition 34 is justice that works for everyone.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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1 Comment

  1. Roger Rabbit

    This topic swings like pendulum. DA’s love the death penalty, lots of publicity, lots of headlines, future political advertisements, and lots of extra money from state to prosecute it, so the benefits are a real incentive.

    Cops support since they want cop killers killed. Not sure how one human life is more important than another, but the belief is cops do a dangerous job and take risks so for that risk they want to know that people that kill cops can face the death penalty. Any victim of a murder wants revenge, justice, pay back, whatever you call it, they want the killer to be killed. But at what cost?

    Being a huge supporter of the Death Penalty for years, I now see how it is a joke, a waste of money, a political tool and is too easy to be abused by over zealous or crooked DA’s. Too many flaws and too many abuses and people need to wise up.

    Has for the Props, they are joke too, no one wants to vote on them since even when they pass, they get ruled unconstitutional and then over turned or tied up in court so what is the point in wasting time to vote on things that won’t be enforced or changed.

    Education of the process is the key, if Victims realized how they are being used as a tool for politics, money, and headlines and if they realize that life without parole gives them closure and the death penalty only gives them years of grief, court appearances, wasted time in testifying, appeal hearings, ect.. A good study of victims families who have had to deal with all the problems of a death penalty conviction would shed so much light on why it is a bad choice and just a continuation of the victims family of being victimized by the system, courts and process.

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