Facts & Research

Public Opinion

Public opinion polls show that support for the death penalty is currently near historic lows after peaking in 1994 and declining over the last 25 years.

DPIC Report: Smart on Crime

DPIC Report: Smart on Crime

Reconsidering the Death Penalty in Time of Economic Crisis


In a democracy, the substance of the laws is determined by the people. Even the constitution can be changed through the democratic process. Public sentiment can be measured through polling, but it is also reflected in elections and referenda, both on a local and national level.

There is a long history of polls of asking the public whether they favor or oppose the death penalty for the crime of murder. The resultant responses might reflect the public’s philosophical or moral stance on the issue, but they do not measure opinion about the death penalty as it is actually practiced, which requires such information as the availability of alternative sentences, the risks of mistake and bias, and the costs associated with the practice.

At Issue

The death penalty is sometimes justified because the majority of poll respondents supports it in the abstract. The Supreme Court, in attempting to determine whether a punishment is cruel and unusual, asks whether the punishment comports with society’s “evolving standards of decency.” The Court has been reluctant to rely on opinion polls to measure these standards because poll results can vary widely depending on the polling firm and the specific wording of the questions asked. Instead, the Court has looked to the actions of state legislatures and the decisions of juries, prosecutors and governors, as reflecting public will. The myriad of disturbing facts about the death penalty has led to a sharp decline in its use and even to a lowering of support in the abstract poll question. Ultimately, the future of the death penalty will depend on whether it is retaining public support.

What DPIC Offers

DPIC has highlighted the results of many polls on the death penalty over many years, both on a national and state level. Some of these polls go into greater depth than those just asking the abstract question of support or opposition. DPIC has also commissioned its own polls, including surveys of those in law enforcement, and has issued reports on the results.

Gallups's 2018 poll about support for the death penalty
Gallups’s 2018 poll about sup­port for the death penalty

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