While most of the country watched Barack Obama being re-elected on election night, and perhaps noticed what happened in the Senate and to a lesser extent in the House, few outside California honed in on Proposition 34. California’s controversial referendum would have repealed capital punishment in our most populous state. It would also have commuted the sentences of more than 700 California death row inmates to life without the possibility of parole.
The measure fell short of passage, but not by much as those of us who follow death penalty trends can tell you. A relatively scant 53% voted to retain capital punishment in California. A week prior to election day, it looked like Proposition 34 might even pass. It was shown leading in the polls but with less than 50% support. As routinely happens with referenda, the undecideds broke to the no column and the measure went down to narrow defeat. Put into context, as recently as 1994, 80% of Americans surveyed on the subject by Gallup favored the death penalty. More on polls in a moment.
The California initiative follows on the heels of other states either doing away with the death penalty or placing a moratorium on executions pending further study. Connecticut is the most recent, and 17th, state to abolish capital punishment. Oregon is the latest to place a moratorium on executions. And Maryland’s Commission on Capital Punishment drew the following conclusion:
“For all of these reasons—to eliminate racial and jurisdictional bias, to reduce unnecessary costs, to lessen the misery that capital cases force victims of family members to endure, to eliminate the risk that an innocent person can be convicted—the Commission strongly recommends that capital punishment be abolished in Maryland.”
The Commission’s rationale can be found here .
In addition to what is happening in various states both Gallup and CNN have been polling death penalty attitudes for years, with some interesting recent, 2011 and 2012, results. Gallup finds that 61% of people nationally support capital punishment. While that’s a significant majority, it’s the lowest in 40 years. Those who oppose capital punishment have more than doubled, from 16% to 35%, since 1994. For 11 years, Gallup has also tracked the morally acceptable/morally unacceptable numbers. The May 2012 numbers showed the lowest number who found it morally acceptable, 58%, and the highest percentage who found it morally unacceptable, 34%, since the question was first surveyed.
CNN’s polling results may be even more telling. For the first time two events have occurred. First, those who prefer life without parole now outnumber those who prefer the death penalty. Second, the number who prefer life without parole has, for the first time, exceeded 50%. The numbers, though still close, are 50% life without parole, 48% death penalty. Not surprisingly, the most supportive group for capital punishment is older white men. Women, minorities and younger voters all prefer life without parole to capital punishment by significant percentages.
Proposition 34 did not succeed in this election cycle. It and other efforts to repeal capital punishment can likely take some comfort in the educational impact of fighting the referendum battle along with the efforts in other states to abolish state sponsored executions. If you’d like to see the specific poll results referred to above, they are here for Gallup and here for CNN .