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  • Chelsea Jacobi

Choosing Capital Punishment: 2016 Referendums and the Death Penalty

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

As of July 1, 2016, there are 2,905 Americans on death row. Almost one-third of those inmates live in one of these three states: California, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, which featured ballot referendums concerning capital punishment in this past election held November 8, 2016.

Approximately 66% of Oklahomans voted to enshrine capital punishment in the Oklahoma Constitution. Meanwhile, 61% of Nebraskans voted to reinstate capital punishment after previously abolishing it in 2015. Californians had a choice between proposition 62 and proposition 66 which would have abolished or reformed the death penalty, respectively. They voted to “reform,” with about 54% of the state voting against abolition, and 51% voting for reformation These three referendums force us to ask what this could mean for the rights of offenders nationwide, whether these three states anomalies or whether they are indicative of a nationwide trend towards strengthening capital punishment? Will they actually have any effect on the rights of offenders (and if so, how?) or are they just empty statements from tough-on-crime legislatures?

California with 741 inmates on death row, has more inmates facing the death penalty than any other state, effectively handing out the death penalty to an average of 19.5 people every year for the past thirty-eight years. However, since 1978, it has only actually carried out the death penalty thirteen times, with the average inmate serving 17.9 years on death row. Proposition 66, also known as the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016, aims to speed up the appeals process and save taxpayer dollars by limiting “frivolous and unnecessary” appeals, establishing a time cap of five years on the appeals process, and reforming death row housing and privileges, among other things. If actually implemented, proposition 66 might save taxpayers millions of dollars but it would also mean the death of hundreds of inmates over the next few years. It would turn the California Department of Corrections into one of the deadliest in the country. Proponents of Proposition 66 argue that, even more important than saving money, the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act would ensure justice for both victims and offenders by actually implementing the sentences handed down by California judges and juries. Meanwhile those who oppose Proposition 66 present a case for morality; they argue that life imprisonment without the chance of parole is enough of a punishment, even for the most heinous of crimes. Furthermore, they argue that murder is murder and it is therefore simply wrong for a state to take the life of one of its citizens, regardless of what that citizen has done.

Unlike California, which has sentenced hundreds of offenders to death but rarely actually executed anyone, Oklahoma has sentenced far less offenders to death but actually follows through on those executions. In fact, Oklahoma executes more offenders per capita than any other state. Unlike California, the Oklahoma referendum did not concern the reformation or abolition of capital punishment, but rather the protection of it. Oklahoma Question Number 776, the referendum, added a new section to Article II of the state’s constitution which constitutionally protects capital punishment by stating that it is not cruel or unusual. It also states that all methods of execution, unless explicitly disallowed by the United States Constitution, are legal. Although Oklahoma is already leading the United States in per capita executions, the anti-execution movement has been gaining ground in the past few years due to three recent botched executions. Most notably, the execution of Clayton D. Lockett in 2014, which forced Oklahomans to question the humanity behind lethal injection, which has a nationwide botch rate of 7.12%.

Finally, Nebraskans, who abolished the death penalty in a 2015 referendum, voted to reinstate it. This solved the issue of whether the 2015 referendum to abolish capital punishment would be retroactive or not; the ten men currently on death row may still eventually be executed if all appeals fall through.

Although it is too soon to know what will happen to the men and women awaiting execution, and although the death row population has been gradually decreasing nationwide for the past two dec

ades, the November 8, 2016 referendums concerning the death penalty are worrisome to all who oppose capital punishment. Without a doubt California’s reformation, Oklahoma’s enshrinement, and Nebraska’s reinstatement will affect, and even possibly end, the lives of almost one-third of Americans currently on death row. However, we must stress the fact that although these three states may have voted in support for the death penalty, twenty-nine states have either abolished the death penalty, have a moratorium on the death penalty, or have used it so infrequently (less than three times in the past three decades) that it is basically non-existent. All in all, three states may have chosen the death penalty in 2016 but the nation overall is moving towards abolishment of the practice, and even in the states of California and Nebraska, those who support abolishment will not give up so easily.


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