by Van Jones and Jessica Jackson Sloan
In the weeks following the election, we’ve heard many theories about why voters made the choices they did at the ballot box. One of the many troubling oversimplifications we’ve heard is that voters embraced the death penalty. But the truth is messier than that. One only has to look at what’s happening in Oregon to see how that claim doesn’t hold water. In fact, the death penalty is growing less popular every day.
Voters in Oregon re-elected Gov. Kate Brown, who has questioned the fairness and efficacy of the death penalty in this state, and just weeks before the election, reaffirmed her decision to implement a moratorium on executions. The same is true for Washington voters, who also overwhelmingly re-elected Governor Jay Inslee who has been a high profile critic of the death penalty.
It’s true that a small majority of voters (53 percent) in California rejected an attempt to replace the death penalty with life without parole in that state, and an even slimmer majority (51 percent) supported an initiative that imposes timelines on death penalty appeals. But these numbers hardly represent a strong mandate, rather they show an electorate that is nearly evenly divided over an issue that just twenty years ago would have received support from 70 to 80 percent of voters. And while 60 percent of voters in Nebraska overturned a decision by their Conservative legislature to end executions, this represents a decrease in support for the punishment.
Four State Supreme Court justices in equally conservative Kansas were all attacked for their handling of capital cases this election season, but all four were retained by voters. Even at the local level, a number of ardently pro-death penalty prosecutors in Texas, Florida, and Alabama were replaced by more reform-minded candidates who are either opposed to the death penalty, or much more cautious about its use. Five of America’s most aggressive death penalty prosecutors have all been ousted in the last year.
Both Gallup and Pew Research Center confirm that support for the death penalty has reached forty-year lows, as voters are increasingly worried about its cost, dysfunction in the system, and the risk of executing innocent people.
The best indicator for whether the public truly wants to use the death penalty is probably jury verdicts, which take the issue from an abstract concept to a reality, and these are also on the decline. Last year, only 49 people were sentenced to death in the U.S, down from a high of 315 in 1996.
A recently-released study detailing the cost of capital punishment shows that Oregon spends millions of taxpayer dollars to maintain a death penalty that hasn’t resulted in an execution in nearly 20 years. These costs far exceed the cost of keeping individuals in prison for life (according to a recent study by Lewis & Clark Law School and Seattle University). Even if Oregonians wanted to resume executions, Oregon lacks the drugs necessary to carry out executions.
It’s not surprising then that the former Superintendent of Oregon’s State Penitentiary, Frank Thompson, and one of its former chief justices, Edwin Peterson, have called for the death penalty’s end. These are men who have seen the system up close and personal and are all too aware of its shortcomings.
It’s quite likely that the death penalty will continue its quiet march into obscurity, but taxpayers will continue to pay the price for a death penalty that exists in name only, unless bold action is taken.
Having been re-elected on an anti-death penalty platform, Gov. Brown has an opportunity to show courageous political leadership on this issue. She can convert the death sentences of all 35 people on Oregon’s death row to life in prison without parole, saving taxpayers tens of millions dollars and ending the false promise of executions.
Van Jones is a CNN political contributor, attorney, and has founded and led numerous social enterprises engaged in social and environmental justice, including #Cut50. Jessica Jackson Sloan is a co-founder of #Cut50, an organization dedicated to identifying smart solutions to crime that reduce the prison population.