|Souce: Gallup. Graph depicts national trends.
The proportion of adult Californians who view themselves as "strong" supporters of the death penalty has dropped from 50 percent in 1989 to 38 percent today. Conversely, fewer than 9 percent were "strongly opposed" to capital punishment 20 years ago, compared to 21 percent today.
"These changes appear to be related to changes in the way Californians view the system of death sentencing, rather than just the punishment itself," said Haney.
For example, the poll revealed much greater concern about the possibility of executing innocent people: 44 percent expressed concern this year, compared to only 23 percent in 1989. In addition, the number of respondents who believe the death penalty is a deterrent to murder dropped from 74 percent in 1989 to only 44 percent today. Similarly, the number of people who did not believe that prisoners sentenced to life without parole would actually stay in prison until they died dropped to about 40 percent, compared to 66 percent who held that belief in 1989.
These findings suggest a series of political implications for the supporters of SB490, a voter initiative to abolish the death penalty in California expected to be placed on the ballot in 2012.
First, it appears that, as we have said before, criminal justice reform is often incremental. It is difficult to get a broad coalition of death penalty opponents on a platform of human rights, and the support of several parties, including, possibly, victim families and law enforcement personnel, depends on maintaining a strong option of life without parole. Doug Berman has recently made a strong argument that the strong push against the death penalty has the unsavory effect of bolstering life without parole. Berman's 2008 paper on the topic masterfully argues that the Supreme Court devotes a disproportionate percentage of its energy to the minutes of the "machinery of death" rather than dealing with more other important criminal justice issues on its docket.
Second, Haney's study confirms our observations about the change in persuasive anti-death-penalty rhetoric over time. Concerns about innocence and deterrence, rather than humanitarian concerns, drive much of the trend.
And third, humonetarianism has the potential of converting even more Californians to the opponents' cause. Haney found, disturbingly, that
nearly half the respondents in the 2009 survey, compared to 54 percent in 1989, thought the death penalty is cheaper to implement than life without parole, although the reverse is true.
This misconception can be easily corrected by a well-designed campaign. If costs are, indeed, a springboard to reform in California, a solid argument comparing the costs of the death penalty to life without parole would go a long way toward broadening public support for SB490.