Most Californians would support a sentence of life without parole for those convicted of murder rather than the death penalty according to a new opinion poll released on September 1. If the life sentence was combined with a requirement that the inmate work to make restitution to the family of the victim, only 26% of Californians would still opt for the death penalty. The poll was conducted by Prof. Craig Haney of the University of California at Santa Cruz. He conducted a nearly identical poll in 1989 and found stronger support for the death penalty at that time. Only 66% of those polled support the death penalty in theory with no alternative sentences offered, compared to 79% in 1989. “What’s significant about the recent decline is that it occurred primarily among the strongest supporters of the death penalty,” said Prof. Haney, a leading scholar on capital punishment and author of the book Death by Design. The poll revealed much greater concern about the possibility of executing innocent people: 44% expressed concern this year, compared to only 23% in 1989. In addition, the number of respondents who believe the death penalty is a deterrent to murder dropped from 74% in 1989 to only 44% today.

The survey also revealed that 64% of respondents oppose sentencing severely mentally ill individuals to death. The new survey queried 800 jury-eligible Californians in February and March of 2009. “There is a higher level of accurate understanding today that life in prison without the possibility of parole is the real alternative to the death penalty under California law,” said Haney, noting that no prisoner under that sentence has ever been paroled or pardoned in California.

(“New poll by UCSC professor reveals declining support for the death penalty,” Press Release, Univ. of Calif. Santa Cruz, September 1, 2009. Contact: Jennifer McNulty (831) 459-2495; [email protected]). See Public Opinion. California has the largest death row in the country, but has not carried out an execution for three and a half years.