September 12, 2014 / 10:21 PM / 5 years ago

Support for death penalty hits 50-year low in California

(Reuters) - The majority of California voters still favor the death penalty as a form of punishment but support has dwindled to a 50-year low, according to a Field Poll released on Friday.

The poll shows that 56 percent of California voters support the continued use of the death penalty as punishment for heinous crimes while 34 percent are opposed, a drop of 12 percentage points from 2011, when 68 percent of voters said they supported capital punishment.

The results reflect an even more significant drop from the 1980s and 1990s when eight out of 10 voters were in support. In 1965, 51 percent of Californians supported the death penalty while 39 percent were opposed.

Meanwhile, the percentage of voters who oppose the death penalty has increased 7 percentage points, up from 27 percent in 2011, according to the Field Poll. The percentage of undecided voters has doubled, from 5 percent in 2011 to 10 percent this year.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, said the erosion of support for the death penalty in California can be at least partly ascribed to long delays in carrying out executions in the state.

A U.S. District judge ruled in July that the amount of time prisoners are kept waiting on death row is unconstitutional. The state has since appealed the decision.

“That issue is the main issue of the day,” DiCamillo said. “What do we do with the death penalty seeing as we can’t seem to administer it very efficiently?”

When the Field Poll posed that question to voters, 52 percent said the state should speed up the process so sentenced criminals aren’t waiting decades on death row before being executed.

Currently, 743 prisoners are on death row in California, although the state has not executed anyone since 2006, according to state officials. Meanwhile, the state is under federal receivership for the overcrowding of its prisons. 

The poll surveyed 1,280 registered California voters from mid-to-late August by phone. The results have a sampling error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

Reporting by Jennifer Chaussee in Berkeley, California; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Eric Beech

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