Death Penalty Damage Control

Jerry Brown

Californians’ long-standing support of the death penalty fits the Wild West image that -- in this regard-- still clings to the state.

"The West has always been kind of a cowboy part of the country," says Douglas Heller, a federal prosecutor who authored the initiative to expand the state's death penalty but who now opposes it.  "They hang 'em high after they've committed a crime.”

The last California governor to commute a death sentence was Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, who commuted 23.  

Brown permitted 36 executions to go forward, more than any governor since, but throughout his two terms as governor (1959-67), Brown could not shake his anti-death penalty image. “The evidence was strong that it seriously damaged my political future,” he wrote.

So it's not surprising that opposing the death penalty is not a selling point for the state's political candidates. 

For decades, public opinion polls have consistently registered Californians’ strong support for the death penalty and, thus, underscored the political risks for candidates who oppose it.

Most recently, SB 490, to eliminate the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole, was pulled from the legislative calendar by its author, Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland), because, she said, “The votes were not there.”

Now an initiative to accomplish essentially the same thing is circulating. The proponents have until March 19 to gather enough valid signatures to put it on the November 2012 ballot.

Let’s explore the political topography of this newest death penalty battle.

First, a word of caution. Where voters stand on crime and punishment depends on how you ask the question.

Californians can seem inconsistent.

We continue to favor “3-Strikes” legislation, but a recent PPIC survey found that voters prefer cuts in prisons and corrections funding to deal with the budget deficit.

Nonetheless, public support for the death penalty remains high.

Last month, a Field Poll showed 68% of California voters favor keeping the death penalty for serious crimes and only 27% want it abolished. (Conservatives are the staunchest supporters; 84% favor keeping the death penalty.)

BUT— when Californians were asked the “either-or” question, the Field poll found “more voters now prefer life imprisonment without the possibility of parole over the death penalty for someone convicted of first degree murder (48% to 40%).”

Who are these voters? Democrats, says Field, prefer life imprisonment (61% to 27%). Republicans support the death penalty (55% to 32%).

“Non-partisans” are evenly divided (43% to 43%).

The fate of the death penalty initiative, like that of potentially dozens of other propositions--and the future of candidates on the ballot, is linked with voter turnout.

A big turn-out could help this initiative, because, in a General Election--as opposed to a primary, an electorate that looks more Democratic tends to show up.

It sure doesn’t look like there will be a big conservative turnout in California next November. (Even if angry conservatives do vote in large numbers, it’s going to be tough for the shrinking GOP electorate to be central to the outcome.)

President Obama is likely to carry this state—he’s more popular here than nationally. And majorities of two key California constituencies, Latinos (55%) and African-Americans (66%) favor life imprisonment over the death penalty.

There is still a long road ahead before voters are again faced with this hot-button political issue. But it’s not inconceivable that California may someday become the 17th state to abolish the death penalty.

More Prop Zero on the Death Penalty:

Death Penalty Critics Seek Repeal

Anti-Death Penalty Budgeting Bungle

The High Cost of Death Row

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