California

California could restart executions. These counties are most likely to condemn murderers.

California’s death row has ballooned to nearly 750 inmates, and the state hasn’t executed a murderer in more than 12 years.

That could change soon.

California voters in 2016 approved Proposition 66, which attempted to remove regulatory hurdles to executions. The California Supreme Court upheld much of the proposition last year. A judge in April lifted an order blocking the state from carrying out death sentences by lethal injection, though some legal challenges to resuming executions remain.

The state has executed 13 men since 1978. Condemned men are held at San Quentin State Prison, and the 23 women on death row are held at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in the late 1970s, California counties have condemned murderers to death at widely divergent rates.

The Bee compared the number of murderers on death row to the number of homicides in each county between 1985 and 2016. About 90 percent of the current inmates on death row were sentenced during those years.

Among the 35 largest counties in the state, Kings, Riverside, Shasta and El Dorado counties have the highest rates of death row inmates per 1,000 homicides. The lowest rates were in Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Merced and Solano counties.

Counties with low homicide rates tended to have a high rate of murderers on death row. Put another way, relatively safe communities tended to send a high rate of murderers to death row.

The death penalty is most often supported by political conservatives. Counties with a high proportion of Republican voters tended to send a high rate of murderers to death row.

The analysis did not find a significant correlation between population size and rates of inmates sent to death row — large and small counties condemned inmates at similar rates. Nor was there a significant correlation between poverty and rates of inmates sent to death row — counties with many or few poor residents sent murderers to death row at similar rates.

The Bee’s analysis has limitations. It is based on reported homicides, not homicide convictions. It is also based on the state’s current death row population, and does not include the 127 inmates who died (mostly due to suicide or natural causes) following their convictions.

Phillip Reese is the Bee’s data specialist and teaches at Sacramento State: 916-321-1137.

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