Foon Rhee

The issue on which California is less progressive than the nation

A guard keeps watch on the east block of death row at San Quentin State Prison in August.
A guard keeps watch on the east block of death row at San Quentin State Prison in August. Associated Press

Progressive California is ahead of the nation on nearly all the big issues of the day: climate change, immigration, environmental protection and more.

But on the death penalty, not so much.

In 2016, California imposed the most death sentences – nine – of any state. Texas – often California’s foil – only recorded four, and only three other states had more than one.

It is the first time in more than 40 years that no state imposed 10 or more death sentences, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The U.S. total of 30 is the fewest since states began passing new death penalty laws after the U.S. Supreme Court declared earlier ones unconstitutional in 1972.

California also has by far the most inmates on death row – 749. Florida is next with 396, but last week its Supreme Court ruled that 200-plus condemned prisoners could seek new sentences, so its death row could shrink significantly.

While about 2,900 prisoners remain on death rows nationwide, polls show public support for the death penalty is the lowest in more than 40 years.

But most Californians seem just fine with being out of step.

Twice in the last four years, voters have refused to repeal capital punishment, despite a broken, costly and unfair system. Proposition 34 was defeated 52 percent to 48 percent in 2012, and Proposition 62 was rejected 53 percent to 47 percent in November. One pre-election poll found all demographic groups in favor of keeping the death penalty except for blacks, voters 25 to 34 and those with advanced degrees.

Instead, voters last month – by 51 percent to 49 percent – approved Proposition 66, which is supposed to speed up executions by streamlining court appeals. The state Supreme Court, however, has blocked the measure from taking effect while it hears a lawsuit from its opponents.

There hasn’t been anyone put to death in California since 2006, but if executions resume, the state would buck the national trend even more.

Across the U.S. in 2016, there were 20 executions, down from 28 in 2015 and the fewest since 1991. Only five states, all in the South, had executions, the fewest since 1983.

“America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment,” says Robert Dunham, the center’s director. “While there may be fits and starts and occasional steps backward, the long-term trend remains clear.”

It’s not all good news for death penalty foes, however. In 2016, the report says, one inmate executed in Texas was likely innocent and several others didn’t get a full court review of their cases. It also says that at least 14 of the 20 executed had significant evidence of mental illness, brain impairment or low intellectual function.

Could the ugly reality of the death penalty actually returning to California turn the tide?

Maybe we won’t really be able to stomach frequent executions, or if one is botched and the condemned inmate suffers unnecessarily. Or perhaps we won’t be able to accept the possibility the state is killing someone who is mentally ill or innocent.

By the numbers

Death sentences imposed and death row inmates for the states with the most death sentences in 2016:

Death sentences

Death row inmates
















Sources: Death Penalty Information Center, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation