Death Penalty Declining in California and Across the Country

The death penalty hasn’t been carried out in the state of California since 2006. Since then, the Constitutionality of the state’s execution policies has been at the center of controversy. Despite this, the state’s death row continues to grow. Juries haven’t shied away from imposing capital punishment when they feel it is appropriate. To date, there are more than 740 inmates on death row in California.

Death Sentences Down in 2018

However, it appears as though the number of defendants in California being sentenced to death is declining. This is quite a shift. In years past, five California counties have ranked among the top 10 counties to impose the death penalty nationwide. Riverside County led the nation in death penalty sentences in 2015 and 2017, sending 17 people to death row each of those years.

In 2018, something changed. No defendants were sentenced to death in Riverside County. Other counties, where the death penalty is regularly sought and sentenced, also saw a significant drop.

  • Los Angeles County: 2 death sentences (down from 14 in 2017)
  • Orange County: 1 death sentence (down from 6 in 2017)
  • Kern County: 0 death sentences (down from 4 in 2017)
  • San Bernardino County: 0 death sentences (down from 3 in 2017)

Why Are Death Sentences Declining?

The death penalty isn’t being used as much as it once was. Why?

Prosecutors Seeking Capital Punishment in Fewer Cases

The death penalty is typically only on the table when prosecutors want it to be. According to Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin, “the number of cases filed as death penalty cases has been reduced dramatically.” In fact, the death penalty was only sought in 2.7 percent of all criminal cases in Los Angeles in 2018.

There are a few reasons why prosecutors may decline to seek the death penalty:

  • Capital cases are time-consuming and expensive
  • Most death penalty cases will be appealed, which adds to time and cost
  • Public opinion regarding capital punishment is changing, and
  • Prosecutors are increasingly interested in reserving the death penalty for the most deserving matters.

Many California prosecutors still claim to be pro-death penalty. However, rather than seeking it in every case that could qualify, they consider mitigating factors and speak with victims and their families before making a decision.

Public Opinion Concerning the Death Penalty is Changing

The death penalty has been quite controversial in California for years. Since 2012, voters across the state have been asked to weigh in on the death penalty no less than three times.

Proposition 34: 2012 ballot initiative to abolish the death penalty. While the proposition failed, 48 percent of California voters were in favor of getting rid of capital punishment.

Proposition 62: 2016 ballot initiative to repeal the death penalty. While the proposition failed, nearly 47 percent of California voters were in favor of abolishing the system.

Proposition 66: 2016 ballot initiative to accelerate death penalty cases. The proposition passed, with 51 percent of California voters in favor of changing the procedural rules that apply to death penalty cases. Under the new law, death penalty appeals can take no longer than 5 years.

Nearly half of all Californians oppose the death penalty. More than half are unhappy with how long it takes (and how much it costs) to resolve a capital case. Jurors are comprised of California voters. Juries bring their own personal feelings about capital punishment into the courtroom and deliberation room. The death penalty may be declining because fewer Californians support the practice.

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