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Opinion: Support for death penalty wanes in California, but still a majority

The gallows in Washington, D.C., as the conspirators in President Abraham Lincoln's assassination are about to be hanged.
(Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress, )

We aren’t there yet, but a new Field Poll finds fewer Californians – 56% – support the death penalty today than at any time since the Nixon administration, and down from a high of 83% during the mid-1980s. Still, only 34% said they favor replacing it with life in prison without parole.

The poll finds some interesting splits in opinions. A solid majority of Protestants, 67%, and Catholics, 60%, favor the death penalty, while it had the support of only 43% of “other non-Christian religions” and 45% of nonbelievers or those not stating a religious preference. And there is a racial divide, too: Latinos (58%) and non-Hispanic whites (57%) still back state executions, while a minority of Asian Americans (47%) and African Americans (46%) supported it. Conversely, given the number of people who had no opinion, banning the death penalty did not have majority support among Asian Americans and African Americans.

So yeah, we’re split, with a majority still happy to give the government the power to kill its own citizens, despite botched executions, wrongful convictions, and a gamed system in which the death penalty is applied arbitrarily. Not to mention the moral argument of whether it is right to kill.

Interestingly, 62% of those with a high school education or less supported the death penalty, a level of support that declined with increased educational levels. Of those with some college or trade school education, 61% supported it. Among college grads, support was at 57%. Among those with post-grad educations, support dipped to 41% -- yet again a minority, 47%, said we ought to do away with it. We’re split by politics – 71% of Republicans say keep it compared with 48% of Democrats and 53% of those in other parties or not in a party.

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And yes, there’s a geographic split. Support was weakest -- 51% -- in the Bay Area, and strongest -- 64% -- in the Central Valley (in Los Angeles County, support was 54%).

The issue has been simmering in California since the federal courts ruled in 2006 that the lethal injection protocol is unconstitutional, and rejected the state’s revisions. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has been working on revamping the protocol, but has not announced a time frame for when that might happen. Meanwhile, earlier this year another federal judge ruled the state’s death penalty system unconstitutional because, among other things, the failure of the state to adequately fund it has led to decades-long delays, thus negating the aims of justice.

In other words, it’s a mess, and it’s not going to get any better. And while support for the death penalty suggests that a new referendum likely wouldn’t pass – California rejected a ban in 2012 - when asked whether, in light of the most recent ruling about the unconstitutionality of the death penalty, executions should be speeded up, only 52% said yes, and those who preferred to replace it with life without parole rose from 34% to 40%. So maybe more people are beginning to come around.

Still, it’s an emotional and volatile issue (just read the comments on any death penalty-related story) in this culture of violence.

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Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.


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