Death penalty slowly losing public support

Gallup shows peak came in the 1990s

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The perpetual debate over the death penalty is bound to be reheated after the mangled, two-hour long execution in Arizona and the federal court ruling that declared California’s death penalty unconstitutional.

It will come as public opinion about the death penalty is slowly evolving.

Gallup has been polling about the death penalty since the 1930s.  Support for it has been steadily waning since it peaked in the 1990s:

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This mirrors the polling done by Pew Research Center:

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Pew Research Center

The reasons why some people oppose the death penalty seem to be changing.  Pew found purely moral reasons have become less important than objections to how the death penalty is administered:

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Pew Research Center

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that Americans increasingly prefer life imprisonment to the death penalty.  “Given a choice between the two options, 52 percent pick life in prison as the preferred punishment, while 42 percent favor the death penalty – the fewest in polls dating back 15 years,” the June 5, 2014, poll report said. “Without an alternative offered, 61 percent continue to support the death penalty, matching 2007 as the fewest in polls back to the early 1980s. That’s down sharply from 80 percent in 1994.”

[Related: Is it possible to kill people in a way that society can stomach?]

This might imply that the polling is missing something.  Support for the death penalty declines when you give an alternative response, in this case life imprisonment.  Similarly, you would expect support to go down if the questions were paired with other information about the death penalty such as the average time between sentencing and execution (16 years) or the number of people on death row cleared by new DNA evidence.

This is the idea behind an experimental approach to public opinion research called deliberative polling. The idea is that you ask a question, then present factual information, and then ask the original question again. 

It would be interesting to see what this shows with the death penalty. While 60 percent support seems strong, it may be not be a solid as it first appears.

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