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Activists participate during a vigil against death penalty in front of the U.S. Supreme Court July 1, 2008 in Washington, DC. The Abolition Action Committee and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty held the Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty to mark the 1972 and 1976 Supreme Court rulings that suspended the death penalty in the United States and later allowed executions to resume.
A ballot measure that would abolish the death penalty in California qualified for the November ballot on Monday. If voters pass the measure more than 700 death row inmates would have their sentences automatically commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Public Policy Institute of California conducted a poll in September 2011, which found that 54 percent of Californian’s favored life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, compared to 39 percent who favored the death penalty and 7 percent who were undecided. Those numbers get much closer when you take into account people who will be voting in an upcoming election.
“When we get to likely voters, it tightens up. 50 percent of likely voters said they favored life imprisonment with absolutely no possibility of parole, 45 percent said they favored the death penalty and 6 percent were undecided,” explained Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California. “This points to the fact that there are not only differences between older and younger voters, and by age and income, but between whites and nonwhites.”
California isn’t the only state that’s veering away from capital punishment. Connecticut’s governor is set to sign a repeal of their death penalty legislation in the coming weeks and Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York have all voted to end the death penalty in the last six years. California could become the 18th state to repeal and part of a growing trend of anti-death penalty sentiment in the country.
Dan Schnur, Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and adjunct faculty at USC Annenberg School says this renewed energy around this issue is different than in the past because the focus has shifted to the overwhelming cost of implementing the death penalty. “I think this is what will drive the discussion in California more than anything else, is again not so much the morality of the death penalty, but rather the cost,” said Schnur. “If you look at the proponents, the sponsors of this initiative, one of the things they've been stressing from the beginning, unlike previous death penalty movements, is not whether the death penalty is right or wrong, but how expensive it is for a state that already has so many other expenses.”
Why does the death penalty cost so much? Experts point to legal fees and the fact that the state assigns adept defense lawyers to capital cases. These attorneys do everything in their power to keep their clients off death row.
“The numbers are tremendous for a very simple reason, lawyers are more expensive than prison guards, even in California,” said University of California, Berkeley Law Professor Frank Zimring. “If you take the 13 people California has executed and the $4 billion that the system has cost since 1978… that's $317 million an execution. If you spread the system costs more evenly you can get down to $60 or $70 or $100 million an execution, but the statistics on cost remain overwhelming even when you go to states with much more executions.”
With support that high, will Californians vote to abolish in November? Where do you fall on the death penalty debate?
Dan Schnur, Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and adjunct faculty at USC Annenberg School
Mark Baldassare, President and Chief Executive Officer, Public Policy Institute of California
Frank Zimring, Professor of Law, Berkeley Law, University of California