Despite Defeat, Over 4 Million Californians Voted to End the Death Penalty

Yesterday, California’s Proposition 34, an initiative to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole, was narrowly defeated by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent. Although a majority of voters chose to retain the death penalty, over four million Californians voted for repeal, representing a dramatic shift away from capital punishment.

The 1978 ballot initiative that enacted the state’ death penalty statute passed with the support of 71 percent of the voters. In 1986, California Chief Justice Rose Bird was removed from office by 67 percent of voters because she was perceived as blocking the death penalty.

This change in public opinion in California that we witnessed yesterday matches declining support for the death penalty across the country. The most recent Gallup Poll shows a drop in support of the death penalty from 80 percent in 1994 to only 61 percent in 2011. Moreover, when respondents are given alternatives such as life without parole, support for capital punishment falls below 50 percent.

California’s use of the death penalty has declined in recent years. Death sentences dropped from 40 in 1981 to only 10 in 2011, and the state has not carried out an execution since 2006. Nationwide, new death sentences dropped to 78 in 2011, a 75 percent decline since 1996, when 315 individuals were sentenced to death. This marks the first time since 1976 that the country produced fewer than 100 death sentences in one year. Executions have also steadily decreased nationwide, with 43 in 2011 and 46 in 2010, representing a 56 percent decline since 1999, when there were 98.

We are thankful for all of the hard work and education that was done by our colleagues in California, and we congratulate them on moving their state closer to repeal. The fact that such a large percent of Californians voted to end the death penalty is testament to the fact that people are increasingly concerned about the very real risk of executing the innocent, as well as the fairness and effectiveness of such a costly, broken system.

(Photo of Prop 34 volunteers taking down a banner in San Francisco on November 6, 2012. Courtesy of Susana Bates, San Francisco Chronicle)

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