Is the era of the death penalty ending? “We’re seeing the first signs that it could happen,” William Saletan of Slate reports.
In a 1994 Gallup poll and a National Opinion Research Center Social Survey, 80 percent of those polled supported the death penalty.
A GSS sample taken in 2012 shows “support fell to 65 percent, the lowest number since the question was introduced in its current form four decades ago.” The following year, another Gallup Poll found support dropped to 60 percent for the first time in 40 years.
One Pew survey discloses that support for executing murderers dropped to 55 percent, down three points from its previous low in 2013.
Saletan cited a CBS News survey that found “the support level fell to 59 percent (four points down from the previous low).”
“The percentage of respondents who opposed the death penalty rose to 33 percent (six points about the previous high),” according to Saletan.
CBS News also reported that for the first time in 26 years, support fell into the 50s or the opposition number has climbed into the 30s.
In a Washington Post/ABC News poll released in May 2014, given a choice between two punishments for murder, only 42 percent chose the death penalty compared to 52 percent who preferred life imprisonment without parole. “That’s an eight-point drop in support for capital punishment since the previous Post/ABC poll in 2006,” Saletan said.
Since 1960, homicide and other violent crimes have caused the rise and fall of the death penalty. Saletan thinks when the crime rates fall, “capital punishment could sink with them. If crime increases, support for the death penalty could rise with it.”
In a two-year Gallup survey (1985-1986), Respondents agreed by roughly two-to-one ratios (61 percent to 32 percent) that the death penalty lowers the murder rate. These percentages moved 10 points by 1991.
This two-to-one margin was completely reversed by the 2000s. “Morethan 60 percent rejected the deterrence claim. That’s a 30-point swing in 20 years,” Saletan said. From the early 1980s to the 2000s, the percentage of respondents who believed that executions deterred murder fell nearly 20 points.
Saletan said, “This is an empirical belief, not a moral one. There is an academic debate over whether executions affect the murder rate. The question is difficult to resolve in part because the number of executions is too small to provide a clear answer.”
“If crime increases, support for the death penalty could rise with it”
Preference for life without the possibility of parole increased among Gallup poll respondents between 1985 and 2010. Even those states that have the death penalty legislation preferred this punishment. Nevertheless, “In Gallup’s trend data, the change in death penalty support (20 points) exceeds the change in response to the life-without-parole question (16) points,” said Saletan.
“When the (Washington) Post/ABC poll presented a scenario in which lethal injection was outlawed or otherwise unavailable, 10 percent of respondents shifted from supporting death penalty to saying it should end,” he adds.
In an NBC News poll conducted in April 2014, 61 percent of those polled chose an alternative method of execution — more than the 59 percent who originally said they favored capital punishment.
“In seven polls taken from 2001 to 2007, on average, 66 percent of respondents said the death penalty was acceptable; 27 percent said it was wrong,” Saletan reported.
In another set of polls taken from 2008 to 2014, “the acceptable average fell to 62 percent.” Those who thought the death penalty was wrong increased to 30 percent.
Over a period of time, people become more averse to violence, according to evidence presented in Saletan’s report. “But it’s hard to connect that grand arc with public opinion trends on the death penalty,” said Saletan.
One reason for the biggest shift in the percentage of those respondents opposed to the death penalty came in surveys conducted in 1991 and 2003. They “cited the risk of erroneous convictions,” Saletan wrote.
Those “numbers more than doubled from 11 percent to 25 percent of the anti-death penalty subsample. This finding is backed by the Death Penalty Information Center’s 2007 survey, which identified people who had shifted from supporting to opposing capital punishment,” he added.
Of the several factors that influenced their decision to oppose the death penalty, “62 percent cited evidence that innocent people are sometimes sentenced to death,” Saletan said.
NBC News’ 2014 poll found 35 percent of respondents said that the reason to oppose the death penalty is that it “carries the risk of killing someone who was wrongly convicted.”
“The second most popular reason given for supporting the death penalty (and the best reason to support it, according to respondents who themselves oppose capital punishment) was that modern science, like DNA testing, reduces the possibility someone has been wrongly convicted,” according to that same NBC News 2014 poll.