The Slow Demise of the Death Penalty

The divided vote on Proposition 34 indicates that the machinery of capital punishment may not grind to a halt all at once. But the signs of its demise are clearly on the horizon.
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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.

Despite the outcome of Proposition 34, the future of the death penalty in California remains questionable. It will take hundreds of millions of dollars just to continue the death penalty in its current broken fashion - money the state doesn't have. Much more will be needed if the state wants to have a system with timely and adequate representation.

California's use of the death penalty has declined in recent years: the state has not carried out an execution since 2006, and death sentences have dropped from 40 in 1981 to only 10 in 2011. Executions are not likely to resume soon because key issues remain unresolved. Questions related to California's lethal injection process linger in state and federal courts, and challenges to the overall fairness of the death penalty are still being considered.

Gil Garcetti, the former District Attorney of Los Angeles, shifted his position on the death penalty when he became aware of flaws in the system. A leading proponent of Proposition 34, Garcetti said, "Much like millions of other voters, I changed my mind on the death penalty when I understood that it serves no useful purpose, that spending $184 million annually on it is obscenely expensive, and that some of California's condemned are likely to be innocent."

Around the country and around the world, the use of the death penalty is in decline. In the U.S., five states in the past five years have ended capital punishment, and more are likely to do so in the near future. The divided vote on Proposition 34 indicates that the machinery of capital punishment may not grind to a halt all at once. But the signs of its demise are clearly on the horizon.


Richard C. Dieter is the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

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