Six Reasons Why Support for the Death Penalty Is Evaporating

The state of the universe.
June 17 2014 12:06 AM

Are Americans Turning Against the Death Penalty?

Six reasons why support for capital punishment is evaporating.

Death Penalty.
A woman prays after the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams in San Quentin, California, on Dec. 13, 2005. Prison officials executed Williams, the ex-leader of the Crips gang who brutally killed four people in 1979, after top courts and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rejected final appeals to spare his life.

Photo by Kimberly White/Reuters

For 40 years American politicians have assumed that favoring the death penalty is a winning political position. Is that era coming to an end? Is support for capital punishment, like opposition to gay marriage, evaporating?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

We can’t be sure. But we’re seeing the first signs that it could happen.

Death penalty support peaked at 80 percent in 1994 in the Gallup poll and the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey. Since then, it has been sliding. In the most recently published GSS sample, taken in 2012, support fell to 65 percent, the lowest number since the question was introduced in its current form four decades ago. If it falls any further, it’ll be in new territory. The latest Gallup sample, taken last year, found that support was down to 60 percent for the first time in 40 years.

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In a Pew survey taken a year ago, support for executing murderers dropped to 55 percent, 3 points down from Pew’s previous low. Last month, in a CBS News survey, the support level fell to 59 percent (4 points down from the previous low) while the percentage of respondents who opposed the death penalty rose to 33 percent (6 points above the previous high). It’s the first time in the 26 years CBS News has asked this question that the support number has fallen into the 50s or the opposition number has climbed into the 30s.

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A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this month points in the same direction. Given a choice between two punishments for murder, only 42 percent chose the death penalty. Fifty-two percent preferred life imprisonment without parole. That’s an 8-point drop in support for capital punishment since the previous Post/ABC poll in 2006. It’s the first time in recent history a majority has chosen life over death.

Why is enthusiasm for the death penalty declining? Will it keep falling? Let’s look at what has changed.

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Crime rates. Academic analyses begin with this correlation. The rise and fall of death penalty support since 1960 closely tracks the rate of homicide and other violent crimes. If crime rates continue to fall, capital punishment could sink with them. But for the same reason, if crime increases, support for the death penalty could rise with it.

Deterrence. In Gallup’s 1985 and 1986 surveys, respondents agreed by roughly 2-to-1 ratios (61 percent to 32 percent in 1985, 62 percent to 31 percent a year later), that capital punishment “lowers the murder rate.” By 1991 the percentages had shifted by about 10 points. By the 2000s, the 2-to-1 ratio had completely reversed: More than 60 percent rejected the deterrence claim. That’s a 30-point swing in 20 years. Harris polls show a similar trend. From the early 1980s to the 2000s, the percentage of respondents who believed that executions deterred murder fell nearly 20 points.

This is an empirical belief, not a moral one. There is an academic debate over whether executions affect the murder rate. The question is difficult to resolve in part because the number of executions is too small to provide a clear answer.

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