After years of support for capital punishment, a new poll shows voters nearly evenly divided on the statewide ballot initiative Proposition 34, which overturns the state’s existing death penalty law and makes life in prison the ultimate penalty for a capital crime.
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 percent of likely voters intending to vote Yes to repeal the death penalty and 45% voting No to keep the law in place.
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.
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.
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 to Prop. 34 is greatest among political conservatives and voters who live in the state’s inland counties, especially those in Northern California outside the Bay Area.
The Field Poll has made regular periodic opinion measurements for over 50 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 percent) than the death sentence (40 percent). This represented a reversal in opinions from a similar 2000 poll, when more favored the death penalty over life in prison without parole 44 percent to 37 percent.
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.
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.