Public Opinion and the Death Penalty

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Although public support of capital punishment has been falling since its peak in 1994 — when 80 percent of Americans said they favored it — approval numbers have plateaued in the 60th percentile over the past decade.

Gallup first started polling about the death penalty in 1936. At that time, 59 percent of Americans were in favor of it. Although support dropped in the 1960s — including the all-time low of 42 percent in 1966 — it rose steadily in the 1970s and ’80s.

According to Gallup, the recent drop in support has mainly occurred in two key groups: young adults (18-to-34) and men. The trend is further broken down by political party, with Democrats who say they favor the death penalty dropping from 59 percent in 2001 to 51 percent in 2012.

According to a Pew Research Center 2011 report, when asked why they opposed the death penalty, most people cited two main reasons. Twenty-seven percent said it was wrong or immoral to kill someone and the same number “cite concerns about flaws in the justice system and the possibility that innocent people could be put to death.”

In a Gallup survey 20 years ago, when just 18 percent opposed the death penalty, a much higher percentage of death penalty opponents (41 percent) cited moral considerations and there were far fewer mentions of problems with the justice system or wrongful executions (11 percent).

Some of that concern may have been generated by the Innocence Project, a program begun by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld designed to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. Since 1989, 305 convictions have been overturned through DNA exonerations — 18 of those on death row.

Courtesy of the Innocence Project

In terms of racial differences, the Pew Center reports that white people (68 percent) approve of the death penalty at a higher percentage than African Americans (40 percent) and Hispanics (52 percent). Regionally, residents of the Midwest (66 percent) and South (68 percent) are more likely to be in favor than those who live in the East (54 percent). Statistics from Gallup show that the more education a person has, the more likely he or she is to oppose the death penalty. Forty percent of those with college degrees are against it, while only 24 percent of those without college degrees expressed opposition.

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  • Meg Seigenthaler

    Interesting that support took a dive around 911

  • Hunter

    It just seems obvious to me that if you can’t reverse a given type of punishment in cases involving wrongful conviction then we shouldn’t be doing it.

  • Steve Weiss

    But what about the clear cut cases of incurable sociopaths? The “red-handed” and worst amongst us? The incurable and drag on society? Those that shouldn’t continue to drag on the scarcity we must manage, that have done enough damage already? While I get the kinder, gentler, modern, more evolved, more enlightened societal values we’re shooting for, should be put the cart in front of the horse and have to continue to cater to our failings or our potential, before we have the Utopia?

  • scottfg

    obvious indeed… amazing that many people don’t see the wisdom of this basic point.

  • Spoke Umbra

    TOO many people have been wrongfully convicted, a disproportionate number are minorities, and those most favoring it are white, with the least chance of being convicted, and Republican. This is not justice.

  • scottfg

    by definition, a sociopath is a person afflicted with a personality disorder. So yeah, let’s put people to death that are mentally ill. That’s just. The USA is one of the few remaining developed countries with the death penalty, yet has much more crime than most. What does that tell you ? It is not a deterrent in any substantial way; it costs more money; it is irreversible, yet there is a certainty people have been wrongfully convicted (and will continue to be) of capital (and plenty of other) crimes – so oh well, so we killed a few innocent people – but hey, we killed even more guilty ones, so our batting average is pretty good… what kind of distorted logic and morality is that ? An eye for eye only makes the whole world blind. Jeez.

  • scottfg

    Statistics from Gallup show that the more education a person has, the more likely he or she is to oppose the death penalty. No wonder Republicans like people to remain ingnorant.

  • Spoke Umbra

    The money wasted on the entire process would be better spent on overall health care, including mental health; treatment is a well documented preventative approach. It costs significantly more to execute than it does for lifetime imprisonment without parole, so the “drag” is less when we keep them alive. We are not even close on the pathological sociopath v. innocent numbers. Charlie Manson, for example, is not going to kill anyone where he is, so why take a chance on killing more innocent people via execution just to kill one person at higher cost?

  • Spoke Umbra

    Just look at the other Bill Moyers post.

  • SinglePayerActivist

    Amen. Thank you. End of capital punishment. …. because it’s really hard to reverse a death when you learn that the person was wrongfully convicted.

  • SinglePayerActivist

    Clarification for readers: Charles Manson is at Corcoran State Prison in California where he is serving a life sentence. He is now 74 years old.

  • PenKuhn

    I don’t think the death penalty is debatable. As with any life-and-death question, like abortion, I think it’s a matter of belief: either you feel instinctively that it, or the alternative, is obscene, or you don’t.

    I personally have found the death penalty absolutely obscene, murder by the squirearchy, since a day in late 1952 or early 1953 when I was on the top of a bus on my way to school in High Wycombe, in England, I was ten years old. The bus was in a traffic jam, with a church ahead, and a right-hand turn past the covered market into the High Street. A single church bell started tolling, very slowly. Boing. Silence. Boing. Silence. Boing. Silence. It was eight o’clock. And the women — women, not ladies — in headscarves, getting up to go to their jobs in shops, and in the factories making chair-legs and stuff like that, all fell totally silent. It was a tense, scary silence. And some of them started crying. And one or two muttered things like, “It’s that poor boy,” or, “He didn’t mean to do it.” It was shocking.

    Normally I didn’t ever see what these women really thought or felt, as my father was a land-owner and their husbands called him “Guvnor”, and one of them cleaned our house. So this outpouring of real emotion was shattering. I realized later that the bell was ringing for a young man called Derek, who had shot a policeman at the age of seventeen and was now being hanged for it. And all the working women on that bus were appalled. And I was appalled at their horror and dismay. And I have been ever since, at the prospect of judicial murder.

  • Mike Havenar

    Some crimes are too heinous to escape the death penalty. On the other hand, each case is particular and every factor of a murderer’s life should be weighed and considered, including upbringing, trauma, mental condition, etc., alongside those of the victim. Has the murderer ever done any good, or contributed in any way to the general welfare? There is no general answer to this question, no either-or, for me.

  • Jim Hassinger

    When you have the death penalty, you infect the law with sociopathy. Think of the Memphis 3, the innocent kids convicted of murder by trumped-up evidence of their “possession by the devil,” and one of them was sentenced to death. The evidence, never great, disappeared over the next 20 years of appeals. But that that time, the law then practically requires that you prove yourself innocent. And eventually, they were released by an odd legal procedure that required them to plead guilty and then release them immediately. They did so, but the procedure seems to me completely sociopathic. The law MUST NOT reverse itself or apologize. Really?

  • Granny

    My rule is “thou shalt not kill”. It could help everyone.

  • Mickey O’Brien

    In other polls I’ve seen, the support for capital punishment declines markedly when the alternative of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is offered.

  • Richie

    In a bitter twist of irony : according to the poll 80% of Republicans are Pro-Death Penalty. Meanwhile in a 2011 Gallup poll 68% of Republicans were Pro-Life. Not sure how one can be both life and pro death at the same time. Maybe you could call these Republicans Pro-Birth then once they are out of the womb it is OK to kill.

  • unanimous

    Or maybe you could say Republicans give every newborn baby a chance to decide whether he or she is going to be a heinous criminal or a benevolent, helpful, and contributing citizen to society. — the death penalty is not a secret and all criminals know they can be put to death for their actions. it is their responsibility to do the right thing and not atrociously take another human beings life. The death penalty protects those good newborn babies.