Gallup Poll—Fewer than Half of Americans, a New Low, Believe Death Penalty is Applied Fairly
Fewer than half of Americans now believe the death penalty is fairly applied in the United States, according to the 2018 annual Gallup crime poll of U.S. adults, conducted October 1-10. The 49% of Americans who said they believed the death penalty was "applied fairly" was the lowest Gallup has ever recorded since it first included the question in its crime poll in 2000. The percentage of U.S. adults who said they believe the death penalty is unfairly applied rose to 45%, the highest since Gallup began asking the question, and the four-percentage-point difference between the two responses was the smallest in the history of Gallup's polling.
The poll also found that, even as the number of new death sentences are near historic lows, the percentage of Americans saying that the death penalty is imposed too often continued to rise and the percentage saying it is not imposed enough continued to decline. 57% of U.S. adults said the death penalty was imposed either "too often" (29%) or "about the right amount" (28%). In 2010, just 18% said the death penalty was imposed too often. While a plurality of 37% said the death penalty was not imposed enough, that figure was down 16% from the 53% level who in 2005 said it was not imposed enough. Gallup analyst Justin McCarthy wrote that "as executions in the U.S. have decreased along with the generally sinking crime rate, Americans have become more likely to say capital punishment is unfairly applied and that it is imposed too frequently."
Gallup measured overall support for capital punishment at 56%, which McCarthy described as "similar to last year's 55%." 2017, he said, "marked the lowest level of support for the practice since 1972." He said "support for capital punishment ... has been trending downward since peaking at 80% in the mid-1990s during a high point in the violent crime rate." The poll measured opposition to the death penalty at 41%, the same as last year's 45-year high. A national Pew Reseach Center poll released in June 2018 reported support for the death penalty at 54% and opposition at 39%. A 2017 study reported that murders in the 37 states that authorized the death penalty in 1994 declined by 35.4% between then and 2014, but that death sentences declined by 76.5%—more than double that rate—over the same time frame.
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FBI Crime Report Shows Murder Rates Stable in 2017
The FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2017, released by the U.S. Department of Justice, reports that murder rates stabilized across the United States in 2017, decreasing marginally compared to adjusted homicide figures from 2016 but remaining above the record lows recorded earlier in the decade. The initial FBI crime figures for 2017 report 17,284 murders across the United States in 2017, compared to 17,413 in 2016, dropping the nationwide murder rate from 5.4 murders per 100,000 people to 5.3. The homicide numbers are virtually identical to the initial FBI homicide figures included in the 2016 FBI Uniform Crime Report, which initially reported 17,250 murders and a murder rate of 5.3 murders per 100,000 people in 2016. Once again, states with the death penalty tended to have higher murder rates than states without the death penalty, with Louisiana and Missouri topping the list at 12.4 and 9.8 murders per 100,000 population, respectively. Seven of the nine states with the highest murder rates (and sixteen of the twenty highest) are death-penalty states, while five of the eight states with the lowest murder rates (and nine of the lowest fifteen) do not have the death penalty. New Hampshire, which has the death penalty, and North Dakota and Maine, which do not, had the lowest murder rates at 1.0, 1.3, and 1.7 murders per 100,000 population, respectively. The data also supports the idea that abolishing the death penalty does not make states more dangerous. Delaware, which ended the death penalty in 2016, saw a 7.8% decrease in its murder rate from 2016 to 2017. As in past years, regional data showed that more executions do not mean lower murder rates. The South, which has performed far more executions than any other region, continued to have the highest murder rate (6.4 per 100,000 people), while the Northeast, which has carried out only four executions since 1976, had the lowest (3.5). FBI data shows that murder rates have fallen dramatically since the 1980s and 1990s, contributing to the nationwide decline in capital punishment. The current murder rate is 45.9% below 1991's murder rate of 9.8 per 100,000 people. However, the decline in new death sentences has been even greater, with the 39 death sentences imposed in 2017 87.5% below the 315 death sentences imposed in 1994 and 1996.
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OUTLIER COUNTIES: Death Sentences, Executions More Likely in Hamilton County Than Elsewhere in Ohio
With 24 prisoners currently condemned to die, Hamilton County—home to Cincinnati—has the largest death row of any county in Ohio, despite a smaller population and a lower murder rate than other parts of the state. Ten of the 55 prisoners executed in the state since the 1970s were sentenced to death in Hamilton County, again more than any other Ohio county. In a recent pair of articles in The Cincinnati Enquirer, reporter Dan Horn describes the county's long history with the death penalty and reports that the county's current aggressive use of the death penalty stems from the county's culture and politics. According to Horn's analysis of Death Penalty Information Center data, Hamilton County's death row is currently the 22nd largest county death row in the country. While Hamilton is not among the nation's seventy largest counties, it ranks among the fewer than 1 percent of U.S. counties that the Enquirer found now account for 40 percent of all death-row prisoners in the country. Of counties with 20 or more death-row prisoners, Hamilton has the seventh largest death row, per capita. “There’s no question Hamilton County is and definitely was a conservative county,” said Andrew Welsh-Huggins, the author of the book No Winners Here Tonight—a comprehensive analysis of Ohio's death penalty. “A conservative county is going to elect conservative prosecutors, and they’re going to take their cues from that," Welsh-Huggins told Horn. Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters exemplifies that characterization, saying, "People in really bad cases want the death penalty. There are certain cases that are so hideous they are just evil." Welsh-Huggins's book—and his earlier 2005 capital punishment study for Associated Press—documented Ohio's on-going unequal application of the death penalty, with race-of-victim, geography, and plea-bargains all affecting death sentencing. The AP study showed that while 8.5% of capitally charged defendants had received death sentences in Cuyahoga County (including the city of Cleveland), 43% had been sentenced to death in Hamilton. Today, two other Ohio counties with larger populations and more murders than Hamilton have fewer people on death row: Cuyahoga has 21 and Franklin County 11. Welsh-Huggins summarized the cause of such geographic disparities, telling Horn: “The law is prosecuted differently depending on who is the elected prosecutor. Your chances of going to death row depend on where you committed the crime.”
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Experience Shows No “Parade of Horribles” Following Abolition of the Death Penalty
States that have recently abolished the death penalty have not experienced the “parade of horribles”—including increased murder rates—predicted by death-penalty proponents, according to death-penalty experts who participated in a panel discussion at the 2017 American Bar Association national meeting in New York City. Instead, the panelists said, abolition appears to have created opportunities to move forward with other broader criminal justice reforms. The transcript of that panel presentation, Life After the Death Penalty: Implications for Retentionist States, which was posted by the ABA on January 3, features discussion of the political factors that contributed to repeal and research into the effects of death-penalty abolition in those states in which repeal has recently occurred. The panel discussion, jointly hosted by the American Bar Association Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and the New York City Bar Association in August 2017, featured four speakers with backgrounds in death-penalty activism, reform, or research: Thomas P. Sullivan, Co-Chair of the 2000 Commission on Capital Punishment in Illinois; Shari Silberstein, Executive Director of Equal Justice USA; Celeste Fitzgerald, former Director of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; and Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. The first three speakers described the circumstances that led to abolition in the six states that legislatively repealed or judicially abolished capital punishment between 2007 and 2014 and explained how abolition sponsors overcame opponents' arguments that, as Fitgerald characterized it, “abolition would bring about a 'parade of horribles.'” Silberstein summarized those worries, saying, “The death penalty proponents' arguments were all the traditional ones you would expect. They talked about the bloodbath that would come if there were no death penalty: murders would spike; the killings of police officers would spike; killings of corrections officers would spike.” Dunham discussed DPIC's research on three decades of murder rates in the U.S., which, he said, shows that abolition of the death penalty had no discernible effect on murder rates in general or murder rates of police and corrections officers killed in the line of duty. Dunham said that if the arguments advanced by death-penalty proponents were factually supported, murder rates in general and the rates at which police and corrections officers were killed should have risen after states abolished the death penalty, both in those states and in comparison to trends in other states. And, Dunham said, “if—as opponents of death-penalty abolition had argued—police officers were especially vulnerable without the death penalty and its repeal would lead to 'open season on police officers,' you'd expect to see not just an increase in the rate at which police officers were killed, but an increase in the number of murders of police officers as a percentage of all homicides.” None of this happened, he said. Instead, murders of law enforcement officers were much lower in the states that recently abolished the death penalty. “[T]he death penalty appears to make no measurable contribution to police safety,” Dunham said. The panelists also observed that repeal of capital punishment had created an opportunity for additional criminal justice reform. Sullivan noted that, prior to repeal, “[a] great deal of time, attention, and effort were spent on the few cases that involved the death penalty in Illinois, while little attention was given to the huge number of people who were convicted and incarcerated for crimes. All that time, attention, and money can now be shifted to reforming the entire Illinois criminal justice system. That would mean that there has been a double benefit from having abolished the death penalty in Illinois.” Silberstein said that in New York, abolition permitted “stakeholders who could not talk to each other in the same way when the death penalty was on the table because [of] differences over the death penalty” to discuss “how best to achieve the key goals of safety and healing [and] work on increasing funding and programs to reduce violence.”
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