Public Opinion

Voters Oust Prosecutors in Outlier Death Penalty Counties, Retain Governors Who Halted Executions

Prosecutors in three counties known for their outlier practices on the death penalty were defeated by challengers running on reform platforms, while voters in Oregon and Washington re-elected governors who acted to halt executions. In Hillsborough County, Florida, Democrat Andrew Warren defeated Republican incumbent Mark Ober (pictured, l.). Warren pledged to seek the death penalty less often and establish a unit to uncover wrongful convictions. In Harris County, Texas, incumbent Devon Anderson (pictured, r.) was defeated by Democratic challenger Kim Ogg. Ogg ran on a platform of broad criminal justice reform and had received support from the Black Lives Matter movement. Harris County leads the nation in executions and is second only to Los Angeles in the number of people on its death row. Ogg had said that the death penalty had created "a terrible image for our city and our county" and pledged that, "[u]nder an Ogg admninistration, you will see very few death penalty prosecutions." Brandon Falls, District Attorney of Jefferson County, Alabama, lost his seat to Charles Todd Henderson, who does not support the death penalty and said he plans to “bring about real criminal justice reform.” Hillsborough, Harris, and Jefferson all rank among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for a majority of death row inmates in the U.S., and were among the 16 most prolific death sentencing counties in the U.S. between 2010-2015. “People are scrutinizing their local criminal justice systems, and people are realizing how much power state attorneys have, and they are seeing elections as a way to change those results,” Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University, said. In gubernatorial elections, voters re-elected governors who had halted executions in their states. Washington voters re-elected Governor Jay Inslee, who imposed a death penalty moratorium, and Oregon voters gave a full term to Governor Kate Brown, who had extended her predecessor's moratorium and pledged to keep the moratorium in effect if elected. In North Carolina, voters defeated incumbent Governor Pat McCrory, who had supported efforts to repeal the state's Racial Justice Act. 

Gallup Poll: Support for Death Penalty at Lowest Level Since 1972

Support for the death penalty in the United States is at its lowest level since November 1972, according to a Gallup poll released October 25. Gallup reported that 60% of respondents said they support capital punishment—off one percentage point from last year—while opposition remained at 37%, matching its highest level since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972. Support has dropped 9 points since 2007 and 20 points since its peak in 1994. The results reflect the same long-term trend of declining support for and increasing opposition to capital punishment that the Pew Poll found earlier this year. Pew found that support for the death penalty had dropped to 49%, marking the first time support had dropped below 50% since 1971. Gallup's poll this year included a question on the perceived fairness of capital punishment. 50% of respondents believe the death penalty is applied fairly, the lowest level in the question's 17-year history, and 44% believe it is applied unfairly, the highest level in 17 years. Gallup tied the poll results to larger trends, saying, "This is reflected in, or perhaps the force behind, changes in death penalty laws in recent years, with a total of 12 states abolishing the death penalty or imposing a moratorium in the last decade alone." Gallup did not include information on levels of support for the death penalty by age, race, sex, religion, or political affiliation as part of its statement on the 2016 poll and did not ask respondents which punishment they found more appropriate for murder: the death penalty or life without parole. Polling this year in California, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Oklahoma indicates that, when asked that policy question, more Americans favor life without parole over the death penalty.

PEW POLL: Public Support for the Death Penalty Drops Below 50% for First Time in 45 Years

Public support for the death penalty fell by 7 percentage points in the last year, with fewer than half of Americans (49%) now saying they support the death penalty, according to a national Pew Research Center poll released on September 29. The poll marks the first time in 45 years that support for capital punishment polled below 50%, when a Gallup poll in released in November 1971 also reported that 49% of Americans supported the death penalty. Opposition to capital punishment reached a record high since the U.S. Supreme Court's 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia striking down existing death penalty statutes. 42% of respondents told Pew that they oppose capital punishment, the most since a May 1966 Gallup poll reported 47% of Americans against the death penalty. The poll results reflect the continuation—and perhaps acceleration—of a 20-year trend of decreasing support for, and increasing opposition to, capital punishment. Support for the death penalty declined across every demographic group in the past year, with the largest decline coming among Independents (13 percentage points). Majorities of Blacks (63%), Hispanics (50%), 18-29 year-olds (51%), college graduates (51%), Democrats (58%), and people with no religious affiliation (50%) now oppose the death penalty and—while comprising less than a majority—more women, Independents, and Catholics say they oppose the death penalty than support it. While 72% of Republicans say they favor capital punishment, support for the death penalty among Republicans dropped 5 points in the past year. Since 2011, support for the death penalty has declined among every demographic group, with overall support falling by 13 points. The polls appear to be reflecting generational changes as well. 59% of those aged 18-29 said they supported the death penalty in 2011. In 2015, support among the young had fallen to 51%, and support plummeted another 9 percentage points to 42% this year. (Click image to enlarge.)

Field Poll: California Death Penalty Repeal Leads Among Likely Voters as Majority Say They Prefer Life Without Parole

A poll of likely California voters conducted jointly by The Field Poll and the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley has found continuing erosion of support for the death penalty in the state and near-majority support for Proposition 62, a ballot question to replace the state's death penalty with a system of life imprisonment without parole, plus restitution. The poll found significant voter confusion about a rival ballot measure, Proposition 66, that claims to "reform" the state's death penalty by purportedly speeding up capital appeals. A plurality of voters said they are undecided about that ballot question. Although support for both propositions led opposition, neither commanded a majority. 48% of likely voters say they plan to vote yes on Prop. 62, with 37% planning to vote no and 15% undecided. 35% say they plan on voting yes on Prop. 66, with 23% currently opposing, but 42% undecided. (Click image to enlarge.) The poll presented likely voters with the summaries of each initiative that will appear on the November ballot. It found that support for repeal was strongest among Democrats (63%), liberals (71%), voters under 30 (55%), and voters with no religious preference (59%). Latinos were nearly evenly divided and constituted the only racial or ethnic group in which more voters said they opposed Prop. 62 (43%) than supported it (42%). Nearly one-third of African-American voters (32%) reported that they were undecided. A plurality of most demographic groups was undecided about Prop. 66, but support for the measure was highest among Republicans (42%), conservatives (45%), and Protestants (41%). The poll also asked voters whether they prefer the death penalty or life without parole for those convicted of first degree murder. A 10-percentage-point majority (55%-45%) said they prefer life without parole, continuing a trend of increased support for alternatives to the death penalty since the Field Poll first asked the question in 2009. At that time, a plurality (44%) prefered the death penalty. Support for Prop. 62 is polling 6 percentage points higher than it did for Proposition 34, the ballot initiative to repeal the death penalty that narrowly failed in 2012, at the same time in the election cycle. A Field Poll of likely voters in September 2012 showed 42% in favor of the repeal initiative, 45% opposed, and 13% undecided. Prop. 34 ultimately garnered 48% of the vote. The poll of 942 likely voters was conducted online by YouGov September 7-13, 2016 and released on September 22.

New Poll Finds "Strong Majority" of Floridians Prefer Life Without Parole Over Death Penalty

A recent poll by researcher Craig Haney, a Professor of Psychology at the University of California - Santa Cruz, has found that a "strong majority" of Florida respondents prefer life without parole to the death penalty for people convicted of murder, even as many harbor continuing misconceptions about capital punishment that would predispose them to support the death penalty. In Haney's survey of more than 500 jury-eligible respondents who were asked to choose between Florida's statutorily available sentencing options, 57% chose life without parole, while 43% chose the death penalty, as the appropriate punishment for a person convicted of murder. The preference for life held true, Haney said, across racial groups, genders, educational levels, and religious affiliation. The Florida results are consistent with recent polls in other death penalty states, such as Kentucky and Oklahoma. Dr. Haney found that Floridians held two common misconceptions about the death penalty that affected their views on the issue: 68.9% mistakenly believed that the death penalty was cheaper than life without parole, and 40.2% mistakenly believed that people sentenced to life without parole would be released from prison. Haney said "support for the death penalty plummeted" to 29% if the life sentencing option was combined with a requirement that these prisoners be required to pay restitution to victims' families. In addition, when Floridians were given the option of diverting the $1 million per case currently spent on the death penalty to investigate unsolved rapes and murders, only one quarter still supported capital punishment. Dr. Haney's research also found that a majority of Floridians oppose the death penalty for defendants with serious mental illness, do not believe the death penalty is a deterrent, and agree that most religious opinion opposes capital punishment. Haney said asking people simply if they support the death penalty is inadequate because "[t]hat question offers a limited and often flawed snapshot of voter attitudes, capturing only abstract support or opposition, but failing to expose strong preferences and deeper pragmatic thinking."

As Council Reviews Kentucky's Criminal Justice Policies, Former Prosecutors, Judge Urge Repeal of Death Penalty

Kentucky's recently-formed Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council will be examining the state's criminal code, and is expected to examine a wide range of criminal justice issues—including the death penalty—in the first major overhaul of Kentucky's criminal code since the 1970s. The council, which was formed by Gov. Matt Bevin, includes legislators, judges, criminal justice experts, and religious leaders, charged with producing a list of recommendations for Kentucky lawmakers. One council member, Bishop William Medley, of the Catholic Diocese of Owensboro, has expressed moral opposition to the death penalty, and received backing for repealing the punishment from some in the courts and the prosecution bar. Circuit Judge Jay Wethington, a former prosecutor who prosecuted death penalty cases told the Messenger-Inquirer that he was "going to side with ... Bishop Medley" on that issue, but for different reasons. "We need to get rid of the death penalty," he said. "We spend too much money for the results." Meanwhile, three former Kentucky prosecutors wrote an op-ed for Louisville's Courier-Journal urging abolition of the death penalty. Joseph Gutmann (pictured), Stephen Ryan, and J. Stewart Schneider discussed the results of a recent University of Kentucky poll, which found that a large majority (72.4%) of Kentuckians support a moratorium on executions. They noted that support for the death penalty has risen since 2011, when the American Bar Association released a study that found serious problems with Kentucky's application of the death penalty. At that point, 62% of Kentuckians favored a suspension of executions. They conclude, "These poll results make it clear that Kentuckians’ concern about the fairness of the state’s criminal justice system is growing. As we have written before, replacing the death penalty with life without parole is the best approach for our state – protecting public safety, providing justice to the families of victims, removing the possibility that an innocent person will be executed and saving limited tax dollars."

Poll: Majority of Oklahomans Support Replacing Death Penalty With Life Without Parole Plus Restitution

A new survey conducted by SoonerPoll has found that while three-quarters of likely Oklahoma voters say they support the death penalty in theory, a majority (53%) support abolishing capital punishment and replacing it with a sentence of life without parole, plus restitution to victims' families. Among every political affiliation, more supported the plan to replace the death penalty than favored keeping it, with a majority of Democrats (58%) and independents (57%) supporting abolition and a 48%-41% plurality of Republicans favoring replacing the death penalty. A similar poll from November 2015, shortly after the failed execution of Richard Glossip, found 52% support for replacing the death penalty with life without parole. The poll results reflect a pattern of softening support for capital punishment among voters in death penalty states. Recent polls in a number of such states show respondents expressing support for the death penalty generally, but favoring alternatives to capital punishment when offered a choice of punishments. A Florida poll earlier this year reported that 62% of respondents preferred some form of life in prison for those convicted of murder. In 2015, 54% of Pennsylvanians preferred life in prison. A recently-released Kentucky poll reported that 58% of respondents preferred lengthy prison terms over death sentences, with 72% supporting a moratorium on executions.

NEW RESOURCE: Political Party Platforms on Capital Punishment

As support for the death penalty has waxed and waned over the years, the views of the major U.S. political parties, as reflected in their national convention platforms, has changed. To track those changes, DPIC has created a new resource presenting the Democratic and Republican party platform positions on crime and the death penalty from 1960 to 2016. With the most recent views of both the Republican and Democratic parties expressed in their 2016 platforms, the new page now reflects changing views on the death penalty throughout the modern era of capital punishment, as well as in the decade leading up to the Supreme Court's 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia striking down death penalty laws across the country. This year, the Republican party platform "condemn[s]" the U.S. Supreme Court for what the platform calls the "erosion of the right of the people to enact capital punishment." The draft of the Democratic party convention, expected to be adopted July 25, calls for abolition of the death penalty, which it says "has no place in the United States of America." To provide context for the changing platforms, the page provides public opinion data on the death penalty from Gallup polling since 1960, and opinion by party affiliation since Gallup first began providing that information in 1988. Alongside that data, it includes an Index of Death Penalty Public Opinion developed by Professor Frank Baumgartner at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. (Click image to enlarge.) 

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