Public Opinion

National Polls Show Historic Declines in Support for Death Penalty

“Counties"(Click image to enlarge) Polls released this week by Pew Research Center and CBS News show that public support for the death penalty has declined to near historic lows. Both polls reported that 56% of Americans support the death penalty. That is the lowest level of support ever recorded by the CBS News poll, and near the lowest level reported by Pew in the last 40 years. The Pew poll examined levels of support by political party and found that the decline in support for the death penalty is particularly striking among Democrats, with just 40% saying they support it now, compared to 71% who did in 1996. While 63% viewed the death penalty as a morally justified punishment for murder, most (71%), said there is some risk of executing innocent people, and 61% said they do not believe it deters serious crimes. Support for the death penalty is lowest among racial minorities (34% of blacks and 45% of Hispanics support it), women (49%), and Catholics (53%).  Large drops in support for the death penalty between 2011 and 2015 were reported among liberal Democrats (11 percentage points), women (10 points), those under age 30 (8 points), and conservative Republicans (7 points).

PUBLIC OPINION: Majority of Pennsylvanians Prefer Life Sentences, Support Moratorium on Death Penalty

According to a new poll by Public Policy Polling, a majority of Pennsylvanians find some form of a life sentence to be preferable to the death penalty, and more support the death penalty moratorium imposed by Governor Tom Wolf than oppose it. When asked what sentence they preferred for people convicted of murder, 54% of respondents selected some form of life sentence, while 42% preferred the death penalty. 50% were in favor of the Commonwealth's death penalty moratorium, including 29% who say they "strongly support" it. 44% said they opposed the moratorium. The poll, which was commissioned by Dr. Eric Ling, a criminal justice professor at York College, also asked respondents whether they thought the death penalty or life without parole was more expensive. 70% erroneously believed that life without parole was the more expensive punishment. Dr. Ling said, “This poll suggests that there is a really significant opportunity to explain to voters why the death penalty costs so much more than a sentence of life in prison without parole. Pennsylvania has spent $350 million on the death penalty over the past few decades while carrying out just three executions. Clearly, more information about how much the state is really spending on the death penalty and what taxpayers are getting in return would be helpful. This is the type of information the Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment should be able to shed some light on when they issue their report.” (Click image to enlarge.)

PUBLIC OPINION: American Ambivalence on the Death Penalty

A new Rasmussen poll found that 57% of American adults support the death penalty, down from 63% in the organization's polls dating from 2009. The poll found 26% of respondents opposed the death penalty, with 17% undecided. Respondents were also asked whether they favored the death penalty for James Holmes if he is convicted of the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Just 55% said they believed Holmes should be sentenced to death, compared to 66% who held that view immediately after the shooting in 2012. Twenty percent were undecided. Rasmussen found that Americans were less supportive of executing a defendant who is mentally ill, an issue in Holmes's case. Respondents also had concerns about wrongful convictions, and were split on whether the death penalty deterred crime.

POLL: Americans Oppose Death Penalty for Mentally Ill by 2-1

A new poll found that Americans oppose the death penalty for people with mental illness by more than a 2-1 margin. According to Public Policy Polling, 58% of respondents opposed capital punishment for people with mental illness, while only 28% supported it. Professor Robert Smith, an assistant professor of law at the University of North Carolina who commissioned the poll, said, "Today's important polling is part of significant new research which clearly shows an emerging consensus against using capital punishment in cases where the defendant is mentally ill. ... Combining this public polling, sentencing practices, and the recommendations of the mental health medical community, it's clear that a consensus is emerging against the execution of a person like Scott Panetti, who suffers from a debilitating (mental) illness ...." Opposition to the execution of people with mental illness was strong across lines of race, gender, geographic region, political affiliation, and education. Democrats (62%), Republicans (59%) and Independents (51%) all opposed the practice. The results echo the growing number of prominent leaders speaking out against the execution of Panetti in Texas, scheduled for December 3.

Duval County, Florida, Leader in Death Sentences

“Counties"(Click to enlarge) According to a report by the Christian Science Monitor, Duval County, Florida, has the highest per capita rate for inmates on death row of any U.S. county. Duval has sentenced one person to death for every 14,000 residents. It is among the 2% of counties in the U.S. reponsible for a majority of all inmates on death row as of 2013, as described in DPIC's report, The 2% Death Penalty. Duval County ranked 8th, with 60 inmates on death row. Duval has handed down 14 death sentences in the last 5 years. As a s state, Florida had the second highest number of death sentences in 2013, behind only California. Florida's unusual sentencing procedures, which allow a simple majority of the jury to recommend a death sentence, may explain some of Duval's high sentencing numbers, but experts also point to cultural factors. Seth Kotch, a historian from the University of North Carolina, said, "We know that the best predictor of execution is previous execution, which suggests that a courthouse or a county can get into a habit of doing things, and those habitual behaviors are informed by cultural cues about crime and punishment.”

Death Penalty Support Remains Near 40-Year Low

In a Gallup poll released on October 23, support for the death penalty was 63%, remaining within the margin of error of a 40-year low of 60% last year. These results represent a dramatic shift in Americans' views on the death penalty since the 1990's, when support for the death penalty peaked at 80%. Opposition to the death penalty has grown significantly among Democrats, more than doubling over the last 20 years, from 22% in 1994 to 46% today. When offered the alternative punishment of life without parole, respondents are about evenly split, with 50% favoring the death penalty and 45% favoring life without parole. Gallup highlighted the dramatic drop in support since the 1990's, saying, "These trends toward diminished support seem to be reflected in state death penalty laws, as six U.S. states have abolished the death penalty since 2007, and no new states have adopted it." See below for a statement on the poll from DPIC's Executive Director, Richard Dieter.

PUBLIC OPINION: Support for Death Penalty in California Lowest in 50 Years

Poll
(Click to enlarge graph) A Field Poll of voters in California found that support for capital punishment has reached its lowest level since 1965. Only 56% of respondents said they favored keeping the death penalty, down from 69% in 2011. Support for the death penalty among Californians peaked in the mid-1980s at 83%. Some of the strongest opposition to keeping the death penalty came from voters under 30, African Americans, and Democrats. Daisy Vieyra, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Northern California, said support for capital punishment has declined because, "The public is becoming more aware of all the flaws that riddle the system." In 2012, a referendum to replace California's death penalty with life without parole almost passed, coming up short in a 52-48% vote.

 

INTERNATIONAL: Support for the Death Penalty Declines in Russia

A recent poll of 1,600 Russians found that only 52% support the death penalty, a sharp decline from 2002, when 73% said they supported it. Two years ago, 61% were in favor of capital punishment. Russia currently has a moratorium on the death penalty that was put in place in 1996 by President Yeltsin, shortly before Russia signed a relevant protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights. Russia's high court has ruled that even death sentences cannot be handed down. Hundreds of those on death row had their sentences commuted to life.

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