Public Opinion

Death Penalty Support Continues Its Steady Decline in Nation's Leading Execution County

Just 27% of Houston-area residents prefer the death penalty over life sentences for those convicted of first-degree murder, according to a new report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. Harris County, the largest county in the Houston metropolitan area, "earned its reputation as the 'death penalty capital of America,'” the report says, "having executed more people since 1976 ... than any other county in the nation." At its peak, Harris County sentenced 44 people to death during a three-year period (1994-1996). However, declining public support for capital punishment has contributed to a drop in the number of death sentences the county imposes. Over the last three years, five people were sentenced to death in Harris County, with no new death sentences imposed in 2015. Texas is experiencing a similar statewide trend: while the state imposed a high of 48 death sentences in 1999, it imposed only two new death sentences in 2015. The percentage of Houston residents who consider the death penalty the most appropriate punishment for murder has "dropped steadily," the report says, including a decline of 12 percentage points since 2008. It attributes the erosion of support for the death penalty to "recent revelations of discriminatory sentencing, innocent persons being freed from Death Row just before their scheduled executions, and botched lethal injections," along with the comparatively greater costs of seeking the death penalty, rather than life imprisonment, which the report says "have risen dramatically." (Click image to enlarge.)

Majority of Floridians Prefer Life Sentence to Death Penalty, 73% Would Require Unanimous Jury Vote for Death

In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down Florida's death-sentencing procedures, a new poll shows that nearly two thirds of Floridians now prefer some form of life sentence to the death penalty and nearly three-quarters favor requiring the jury to unanimously agree on the sentence before the death penalty can be imposed. The poll by Public Policy Polling found that 62% of respondents preferred some form of life in prison over the death penalty for convicted murderers, while 35% preferred the death penalty. A plurality (38%) preferred life without parole coupled with restitution payments, while an additional 24% preferred either life without parole or life with parole eligibility after 40 years. The poll comes shortly after the Supreme Court declared Florida's sentencing scheme unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida because it permitted judges, rather than juries, to determine whether the prosecution had proven factors that make a defendant eligible for the death penalty. It left open a second question as to whether jury recommendations for death had to be unanimous. As the Florida legislature considers its response to Hurst, the poll showed broad support across the political spectrum for requiring jury unanimity in sentencing. Overall, 73% of Floridians supported a unanimity requirement, including 70% of Republicans and Independents and 77% of Democrats. A Tampa Bay Times investigation this week raised questions as to the reliability of non-unanimous death sentences. The paper reported that death sentences imposed after non-unanimous jury recommendations were far more likely to be overturned and posed serious risks to the innocent. 18 of the 20 Florida exonerations for which jury data was available (90%) involved non-unanimous jury recommendations, including 3 cases in which judges overrode jury recommendations for life sentences. Stephen Harper of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University College of Law, responded to the polling results, saying, "The state legislature should follow Floridians’ lead and support a unanimous jury requirement in capital cases. Failing to do so will leave Florida’s death penalty statute vulnerable to additional costly litigation."

PUBLIC OPINION: Support for Repealing Death Penalty Grows in California

A recent survey of Californians conducted by The Field Poll found that voters are evenly split between wanting to speed up the execution process (48%) and supporting repeal of the death penalty and replacing it with life without parole (47%). Support for repeal has grown since 2014, when the question was last asked. At that time, 40% favored replacing the death penalty with life without parole and 52% supported speeding up the process. Californians may face a choice between the two options in November, as competing initiatives have been proposed. Republicans, whites, and voters over age 50 were more likely to support speeding up executions, while Democrats, Hispanics, blacks, and voters under 50 favored repealing the death penalty. "There continues to be a very strong movement away from support for the death penalty in California,” said Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, an organization that is supporting the initiative to repeal the death penalty. (click graphic to enlarge).

Study Shows Trends in Executions, Death Sentences Closely Track Drop in Public Support for the Death Penalty

Historical trends in executions and new death sentences closely track changes in public attitudes about the death penalty and crime in general, according to a comprehensive University of North Carolina analysis of national public opinion surveys on the death penalty. UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Frank Baumgartner has created a statistical index of public support for capital punishment based upon the results of 488 national surveys on the death penalty over the last 40 years. This index documents the close relationship between steep nationwide declines in executions and new death sentences and the historical declines in public support for the death penalty. Baumgartner says the public opinion polls show that support for the death penalty and for punitive criminal justice policies in general have declined substantially since 1976. He observes that "The number of death sentences tracks closely with public opinion toward that form of punishment.... As the public has increasingly spurned the death penalty, death sentences have also declined." Baumgartner's study also shows that the number of counties and states carrying out executions, as well as the number of executions and new death sentences, have all declined in a pattern closely tracking the drop in public support. He concludes, "No matter how we look at it, for the past 20 years, the death penalty has been dying." (Click image to enlarge.)

AMERICAN VALUES SURVEY: Majority of Americans Prefer Life Without Parole Over Death Penalty

A majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty, according to the 2015 American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. The poll of 2,695 Americans found that 52% preferred life without parole, while 47% preferred the death penalty. The poll found that respondents' views on capital punishment tracked their views about racial justice and differed greatly by race. 53% of all Americans agreed with the statement, "A black person is more likely than a white person to receive the death penalty for the same crime," while 45% disagreed. But 82% of blacks and 59% of Hispanics agreed with the statement, while fewer than half (45%) of whites agreed. Only 37% of those who saw racial disparities in the application of the death penalty supported capital punishment, while the death penalty drew support from 59% of those who disagreed that blacks were more likely than whites to receive death sentences. White Americans' views on this question differed greatly by social class, with 54% of college-educated whites saying blacks were more likely than whites to receive the death penalty and 58% of white working-class Americans saying this was not the case. Views about the perceived fairness of the death penalty also split sharply along partisan lines. 64% of Republicans disagreed with the statement on racial disparities, as compared to 28% of Democrats. Independents were evenly divided. Overall, about two-thirds (65%) of Democrats said they preferred life without parole, while 67% of Republicans said they preferred the death penalty.  

POLL: Majority of Oklahomans Favor Replacing Death Penalty With Life Without Parole Plus Restitution

A majority of Oklahoma voters favor abolition of the death penalty if it is replaced with a sentence of life without parole plus restitution, according to a new poll commissioned by News 9/News on 6. The survey by the non-partisan SoonerPoll.com found that 52.4% of Oklahomans would support abolition of the death penalty if the state replaced its system of capital punishment with the alternative sanction of life without parole, plus a requirement that the inmates pay restitution to victims' families. Nearly a third of respondents (30.5%) said they would "strongly support" abolition if this alternative punishment option were offered. The gap between support for replacing the death penalty versus retaining it as is was more than 18 percentage points, with 34.0% of respondents saying they would oppose abolition. A poll commissioned by The Oklahoman in October that asked the general question whether Oklahomans supported or opposed the death penalty reported that 67% of Oklahomans expressed support for the death penalty, down from 74% support reported in a 2014 poll by the Tulsa World. The Oklahoman poll showed that, at the same time, half of Oklahomans favored a moratorium on the state's death penalty. “A lot of people are in support of the death penalty right now, because they were never given an alternative,” said Bill Shapard, founder of SoonerPoll.com. “Right now the death penalty is really the only alternative to those who have committed some of the worst crimes in our society. But yet, now we are given an alternative, people are open to that.” The results of the Oklahoma polls are consistent with national polls, which find that respondents say they support the death penalty in the abstract, but prefer life without parole over the death penalty when offered a choice between the two.

New Position of National Association of Evangelicals Shows Cracks in Death Penalty Support

Recognizing that "a growing number of evangelicals now call" for a shift away from the death penalty, the National Association of Evangelicals - an umbrella group for congregations representing millions of evangelical Christians in the United States - has backed away from its prior strong support for capital punishment. A newly adopted NAE resolution states, "Evangelical Christians differ in their beliefs about capital punishment, often citing strong biblical and theological reasons either for the just character of the death penalty in extreme cases or for the sacredness of all life, including the lives of those who perpetrate serious crimes and yet have the potential for repentance and reformation. We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought." The resolution says "Nonpartisan studies of the death penalty have identified systemic problems in the United States" and expresses concerns about "the alarming frequency of post-conviction exonerations." Previously, the NAE had been entirely supportive of the death penalty. Shane Claiborne, an evangelical Christian author and activist, called the NAE's change, "a big deal," saying, "For evangelicals, one of the core tenets of our faith is that no one is beyond redemption. The death penalty raises one of the most fundamental questions for evangelicals: Do we have the right to rob someone of the possibility of redemption?" According to a Pew Research Center poll from March 2015, white evangelical Protestants were more supportive of the death penalty than any other group, with 71% in favor, although support had dropped 6 percentage points since 2011. 

Gallup Poll: Support for Death Penalty Declines 2%, Opposition Reaches Highest Level in 43 Years

Support for the death penalty in the United States dropped by two percentage points over the last year and opposition rose to its highest levels since before the Supreme Court declared existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972, according to the 2015 annual Gallup Poll on the death penalty. Gallup reports that 61% of Americans say they favor the death penalty, down from 63% last year and near the 40-year low of 60% support recorded in 2013. Support was 19 points below the 80% who told Gallup in 1994 that they supported capital punishment. 37% said they opposed the death penalty, the most in 43 years and 21 points above levels reported in the mid-1990s. Death penalty support was lower and opposition higher among racial minorities than among whites. A majority of African Americans (55%) oppose the death penalty, while 68% of whites say they support it. The poll results are consistent with other signs of declining support for the death penalty: seven states have abolished the death penalty since 2007, and death sentences are at their lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated. Even with historic lows in death sentencing, the poll reports the highest percentage of Americans to say the death penalty is imposed too often (27%) since Gallup first posed that question in 2001. The 40% who said the death penalty is not imposed enough was tied for the lowest percentage to say so since May of 2001. (Click image to enlarge.)

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