Public Opinion

Pew Poll Finds Opposition to Death Penalty Among Racial and Ethnic Minorities


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Further analysis of a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that support for the death penalty was significantly lower among some racial and ethnic minorities than for the general population. More Hispanics oppose the death penalty (50%) than support it (40%), and the same is true of African Americans, with only about a third (36%) favoring capital punishment and a majority (55%) opposing it. Democrats are about evenly split, with 45% in favor and 47% opposed, while 71% of Republicans support it. Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics were among those most in opposition to capital punishment (58% and 54% opposed, respectively). Support was lower among younger Americans; for those in the age group 18-29, only 51% supported the death penalty. Overall, 55% of Americans in the poll supported the death penalty, the lowest level since Pew began polling on this question in 1996. Pew said greater public awareness of wrongful convictions and lower crime rates may be partly responsible for the declining support of capital punishment. 

Pew Poll Shows Sharp Drop in Death Penalty Support

Support for the death penalty has fallen sharply by 23 percentage points since 1996, reaching its lowest level in almost two decades, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. The 2013 poll also found a 10 point drop in just the last 2 years in respondents who say they "strongly favor" the death penalty, from 28% to 18%. The percentage of Americans who say they oppose the death penalty has risen to 37%. In 2011, Pew asked respondents about the reasons behind their views on the death penalty, finding that the top two reasons for opposition to capital punishment were the imperfect nature of the justice system and a belief that the death penalty is immoral. The drop in public support coincides with an overall decline in use of the death penalty during the same time period, with both death sentences and executions falling dramatically since the 1990s. Six states have repealed the death penalty in the last six years, and three governors have recently imposed moratoriums on executions.

PUBLIC OPINION: Support for Death Penalty Low Among Christians, Particularly Younger Members

A new poll by the Barna Group found that only 40% of practicing Christians supported the death penalty, and support was even lower among younger Christians. According to the poll released on January 17, only 23% of practicing Christian "millennials" (i.e., those born between 1980 and 2000) agreed with the statement: "The government should have the option to execute the worst criminals." Without regard to their regular practice of their faith, only 42% of Christian baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and only 32% of millennials agreed with the use of the death penalty. Roxanne Stone, the vice president of publishing at Barna, said, "This parallels a growing trend in the pro-life conversation among Christians to include torture and the death penalty as well as abortion. For many younger Christians, the death penalty is not a political dividing point but a human rights issue." 

PUBLIC OPINION: Support for Death Penalty At Its Lowest in 40 Years

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 A recent Gallup poll found the lowest level of support for the death penalty in America since 1972. Gallup's October poll measured Americans' abstract support at 60%, a 20-percentage point decline from 1994, when 80% of respondents were in favor of the death penalty for those convicted of murder. Support for the death penalty differed sharply among those who identified themselves with a political party: 81% of Republicans supported the death penalty, while only 47% of Democrats and 60% of Independents favored it. However, support among all three groups has dropped in the last 25 years, with the Democrats’ support declining 28 percentage points since its peak in 1994. This poll measured the public’s support for capital punishment in theory, without any comparison to other punishments. When Gallup and other polls have offered respondents a choice of the proper punishment for murder - the death penalty or life in prison without parole - respondents are about evenly split, with less than 50% supporting the death penalty. Gallup's release noted that the decline in support may be linked to the issue of innocence, "The current era of lower support may be tied to death penalty moratoriums in several states beginning around 2000 after several death-row inmates were later proven innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted." In the past 10 years, the percentage of Americans who believe the death penalty is applied fairly has dropped from 60% to 52%.

PUBLIC OPINION: Boston Residents Favor Life Without Parole for Suspect in Marathon Bombing

A recent poll sponsored by the Boston Globe found that a significant majority of Boston residents favor life without parole over the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bombing suspect. Fifty-seven percent (57%) of respondents supported a sentence of life without parole if Tsarnaev is convicted, compared with only 33% who favored the death penalty.  Sixty-one (61) percent of Democrats and 49% of Republicans (a plurality) supported a sentence of life without parole. The option was endorsed by men and women, across all educational levels, and among white, black, and Hispanic respondents. The poll was conducted September 5−12 by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Although the death penalty is not available under Massachusetts law, Tsarnaev is facing federal charges. No decision has been made yet on whether the government will seek the death penalty.

Californians Moving Away From Death Penalty Support

In a recent op-ed, the co-author of a key study on the viability of California's death penalty analyzed the recent dramatic shift in public opinion on capital punishment in the state. According to Paula Mitchell, adjunct professor at Loyola of Los Angeles Law School, decades of polling showed about two-thirds of Californians supported the death penalty, but the 2012 referendum to repeal the law lost by just 4 percentage points (52%-48%). Moreover, in counties that used the death penalty the most, support for the death penalty was even lower. In Los Angeles County, which has more people on death row than any other American county, 54.5% of voters favored repeal. In Alameda County, ninth among all counties in death row inmates, 62.5% of the votes cast were for repeal. Mitchell said that this drop in support was due to several factors. California's death penalty, she said, "is expensive and structurally broken—probably beyond repair." She also pointed to unfairness in the system, particularly along racial lines: "In addition to concerns over the exorbitant costs associated with capital punishment and the potential for wrongful convictions—issues that were well publicized during the campaign to repeal last year—there are also ever-present concerns over the uneven application of death penalty." African Americans make up over 36% of California's death row, even though they constitute only 6% of the state population. Read full op-ed below.

INTERNATIONAL: New Report on the Death Penalty in Malaysia

A new report by the London-based Death Penalty Project explores the use of mandatory death sentencing in Malaysia. In the U.S., the Supreme Court barred the use of mandatory death sentences in 1976, holding that judges and juries needed to consider the individual differences among defendants, out of respect for human diginity. (Woodson v. North Carolina, and other opinions). DPP's report found that the number of executions carried out in Malaysia has declined in the last decade even though there have been no major changes in law or reforms in the system. As part of the research, a poll was conducted to discern the public's support for mandatory death sentences. The poll found little public opposition to abolishing the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking and firearms offenses, though 56% of respondents still supported a mandatory death sentence for murder.  Read full text of the report.

PUBLIC OPINION: Strong Majority of North Carolinians Prefer Life Without Parole Over the Death Penalty

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A recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling indicated a strong majority of North Carolina residents prefer replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole (LWOP), as long as some conditions are imposed. According to the survey, 68% of respondents support replacing the death penalty with LWOP if the offender had to work and pay restitution to the victim’s family. Sixty-three percent (63%) support repealing the death penalty if the money saved was redirected to effective crime fighting tools. And more than half (55%) of the respondents supported ending the death penalty if the money saved was redirected to solving cold cases and assisting victims of crime. Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, noted the change occurring on this issue: “The days when the death penalty enjoyed near-universal support are clearly over," he said. "Across the country, poll after poll has shown that. These results show that people in North Carolina are willing to consider alternatives to capital punishment.” Read full results of the survey.

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