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.)
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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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Legal Scholar Says President Obama May Be Close to Opposing Death Penalty
According to Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., a Harvard law professor who taught President Obama and the First Lady when they were law students, the President may be changing his views on capital punishment. Obama has said that he supports executions for "especially horrific" murders, but has also raised concerns about the death penalty. Ogletree said that Obama's recent focus on racial bias in the criminal justice system, as well as declining public support for the death penalty, may drive the President to oppose capital punishment. "He's not there yet, but he's close," Ogletree said. "Even if he doesn't change his mind in the next year and a half, I think the public's point of view is going to influence him." A former strategist for President George W. Bush, Matthew Dowd, recently compared changing public views on the death penalty and same-sex marriage, saying, "Twenty years from now, people that are for the death penalty are going to be in the same place as people that are against gay marriage." In 2014, Obama commented on the death penalty after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett. "In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems -- racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty," he said. A growing body of research supports Obama's statement about racial bias. For example, a study in Philadelphia found that the odds of a jury handing down a death sentence were 29 times higher if the defendant was black, and that murder cases involving a black defendant and a white victim resulted in death sentences at 5 times the rate of cases in which the races were reversed.
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Quinnipiac Poll Shows Americans Prefer Life Without Parole to Death Penalty
A new poll by Quinnipiac has found that more Americans prefer life without parole (48%) than the death penalty (43%) for people convicted of murder. Since Quinnipiac last asked the question in 2013, support for life without parole has risen by five percentage points and dropped for the death penalty by five points. A June 2014 ABC News/Washington Post poll also showed that more Americans preferred life without parole to the death penalty. Quinnipiac found that 58% of Americans say they support the death penalty for those convicted of terrorism, but that number also has dropped five points since 2013. 62% of respondents indicated that they preferred the death penalty for Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, as contrasted with just 33% of Boston residents favoring death. By comparison, in 1997, 68% of Americans said that Timothy McVeigh should have received the death penalty after his conviction for the Oklahoma City bombing. (Click image to enlarge.)
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TIME Magazine Poses Five Reasons for Death Penalty Decline
In a cover story for TIME Magazine, award-winning journalist and TIME editor-at-large David Von Drehle explores the decline of capital punishment in the U.S. Von Drehle offers five significant reasons for the drop in death sentences, executions, and public support for the death penalty in the United States. First, he cites persistent problems with the administration of the death penalty: botched executions and a lengthy appeals process that fails to identify wrongful convictions for decades, if at all. Second, he points to the falling crime rate, showing that support for the death penalty has closely tracked the national murder rate throughout the 20th century. The third reason Von Drehle gives is the erosion of the justification for capital punishment. Life without parole sentences provide an alternative way to ensure that a murderer will never be released and an equivalent to "[w]hatever deterrent capital punishment provides." He also describes the historical use of executions as a tool of white supremacy. While he notes that "the overt racism of the old order is now plainly unconstitutional," the system remains plagued by economic bias, as a result of which "[t]hose without the capital get the punishment." Fourth, he highlights the financial cost of the death penalty, which has led some prosecutors to decide that death sentences are simply not a priority within a constrained budget. Finally, he says, "Actions of the legislatures, lower-court judges and governors can all be read by the Supreme Court as signs of 'evolving standards of decency' in society," which the U.S. Supreme Court may eventually see as justification for striking down capital punishment. He concludes, "The facts are irrefutable, and the logic is clear. Exhausted by so many years of trying to prop up this broken system, the court will one day throw in the towel."
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Death Sentences Fall Across Texas, Support Drops in County That Leads U.S. in Executions
Harris County (Houston), Texas, has executed more men and women than any other county in the United States, but a recent poll shows that a strong majority of its residents now support alternative sentences. A report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University found that only 28% of respondents in Harris County prefer the death penalty to life without parole as punishment for first-degree murder. The poll also found that overall support for the death penalty was at a 20-year low, with 56% saying they were in favor of capital punishment. As public support for the death penalty has dropped, so have Harris County death sentences. The County handed down a combined 44 death sentences from 1994-1996, but sentenced only 5 people to death from 2012-2014. Death verdicts are also down statewide. According to a Dallas Morning News commentary, Texas imposed 11 death sentences in 2014, down from 39 in 1999. No death sentences have been imposed in the state so far this year. (Click image to enlarge.)
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National Polls Show Historic Declines in Support for Death Penalty
(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).
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