Is California’s Death Penalty an Effective Deterrent to Crime?

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Between 1778 and 1972, more than 700 executions occurred in California. In 1972, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty statute violated the California state constitution. Capital punishment was swiftly reinstated via a constitutional amendment put forth as Proposition 17. Since then, state law has authorized the imposition of the death sentence for those convicted of some forms of homicide or other specified crimes. Nearly 1,000 individuals have received death sentences since the current system was adopted in 1978.

However, it has been more than ten years since the last execution of a convict. The hiatus is the result of disputes over lethal injection protocols rather than any debate over the wisdom of the penalty itself. As a result, the number of men and women sentenced to death continues to grow.

lethal injection in california

In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 66, which was aimed at clearing procedural hurdles to allow the resumption of executions in San Quentin’s death chamber. Death penalty opponents challenged the validity of the Proposition, but in 2017 the state Supreme Court upheld most of its provisions.

While other federal and state legal challenges are pending, the ruling by the state’s highest court was another step toward the resumption of executions. It has reinvigorated the debate over capital punishment’s effectiveness and morality.

The principal result of an execution is, of course, the immediate and irreversible removal from society an individual convicted of the most serious of crimes. It also exacts a measure of vengeance that is deemed appropriate in response to, especially heinous crimes.

Death penalty opponents continue to point to exoneration cases such as that of Vicente Benavides Figueroa in April.  As shown below, however, equally credible supporters insist that capital punishment is also an effective deterrent to others who might otherwise commit similar acts. As with other controversial social topics, both capital punishment advocates and opponents can point to an array of respected sources that support their respective positions.

The following are just a few examples that illustrate the depth of disagreement between the opposing points of view.

“Studies of the death penalty have reached various conclusions about its effectiveness in deterring crime. But… the majority of studies that track effects over many years and across states or counties find a deterrent effect.” David Muhlhausen, PhD, Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis at the Heritage Foundation (2014)

“Any criminal who actually thought he would be caught would find the prospect of life without parole to be a monumental penalty. Any criminal who didn’t think he would be caught would be untroubled by any sanction.” John J. Donohue III, JD, PhD, Professor of Law at Stanford University

“We know that, for whatever reason, there is a simple but dramatic relationship between the number of executions carried out and a corresponding reduction in the number of murders.” Michael Summers, PhD, MBA, Professor of Management Science at Pepperdine University


Recent Developments

In an unprecedented move, in August 2017 the judge in the trial of convicted Orange County mass murderer Scott Dekraai imposed eight consecutive life sentences but ruled that the state could not pursue the death penalty. The court cited as justification significant evidence made public in recent months of widespread and long-standing prosecutorial and law enforcement misconduct in the County.

As of mid-2018, around twenty death row defendants’ appeals have for all intents and purposes been exhausted. If death penalty proponents succeed in removing the remaining roadblocks to the resumption of executions, these individuals are likely to be the first in line.

California voters will elect a new governor in November 2018. Five of the major party candidates have publicly stated their opposition to the death penalty. It is unclear what death penalty-related actions if any, incumbent Governor Jerry Brown will take prior to the end of his administration.

Author Photo

Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.

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