Pew Research Has Big News on the Death Penalty
Here are the opening paragraphs of this story, reported by the NYT:
For the first time in almost half a century, support for the death penalty has dipped below 50 percent in the United States.
Just 49 percent of Americans say they support capital punishment, according to a Pew Research Center poll … That represents a seven-point decline in about a year and a half. Support peaked at 80 percent in 1994.
The death penalty has had majority support among Americans for 45 years. The last time support was as low as it now stands was in 1971.
Not good news for the folks on my side of the issue. But wait, there’s a catch.
That poll was taken four and a half years ago. Here’s beginning of the Hill report about the Pew poll taken this year:
A majority of Americans favor the death penalty despite having some reservations about how it is administered, according to a poll from Pew Research Center released Tuesday.
The survey found that 60 percent of U.S. adults favor capital punishment for people convicted of murder, including 27 percent who strongly support it. Thirty-nine percent of respondents oppose the death penalty.
Sixty-four percent of respondents overall — and 90 percent of death penalty supporters — said that executions are morally justified in cases of murder. A quarter of death penalty opponents say it is morally justified in instances of murder.
So here’s how the new research might more correctly have been headlined in our mainstream media: “Support for the death penalty surges in less than five years.”
Why don’t we see a headline like that (from the Hill, or the NYT, or Pew itself)? Because the liberal mantra is that “the death penalty is dying,” and when support has actually increased by about twenty percent in recent years (from 49 to 60), the mantra doesn’t look so hot. So other things need to be emphasized instead, such as that majorities believe that there is some possibility an innocent person will be executed, that blacks are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites, or that death penalty has little deterrent effect.*
It’s true that there were fewer executions carried out last year than in decades. That’s largely because the country, including aspects of the legal system across the board, was significantly shut down from the most menacing pandemic in a century. But the number of executions is in any event a lagging indicator of public support for capital punishment, which tends to show up in an uptick in executions seven or eight or nine years later. For the formulation of public policy, the key is — as it should be — what the electorate wants. And according to Pew — hardly a right-leaning outfit — 60% of it wants to keep the death penalty (which is more than wanted Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George Bush or Bill Clinton).
Why has public support for the death penalty increased so much when it had been falling for twenty years, or since the mid-Ninties? I can’t say for sure, but I’ll take an educated guess. Support has risen over the last five or six years because the number of murders annually has risen, dramatically, over that time. Over the last 12 months in particular, murder has risen to levels not seen in decades. It’s now at the point that even a biased press can no longer pass it off as a blip or a momentary phenomenon.
The death penalty is strong medicine. No normal person relishes the prospect of executing a fellow creature. A humane American public is hesitant to use strong medicine except when a strong need for it is shown. A surge in murder of the kind we have seen in recent years, in city after city and from sea to shining sea, is such a need. To my way of thinking, the increase in support for capital punishment is no big mystery. I only wish it were reported more forthrightly.
* Of course it is possible now, as always, that an innocent person could be executed. But it’s more possible, indeed it’s certain, that a failure to impose the death penalty ever will preserve the lives of those who will kill again (and again). And there has been no proof accepted by any neutral authority that we’ve executed an innocent person for at least 50 years if not considerably longer.
Blacks are proportionately more likely to be executed than whites because blacks commit proportionately more murder than whites. I don’t have to like this fact, but a fact it is.
The deterrent effect of the death penalty is much debated, but no serious person could believe that it has no deterrent value whatever. Obviously it would have more if it were used more often (which is true of any other punishment), but I doubt that more frequent use is what those complaining about relative lack of deterrence would want.