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.



7 Responses

  1. Douglas Berman says:

    According to DPIC data, the first 3 years of Obama’s first term (2009 to 2011) , there were 317 death sentences imposed and 141 executions in the US. During the first 3 years of Trump’s first term (2017 to 2019), there were 161 death sentences and 70 executions. Because folks tend to support capital punishment more in theory than in practice, I think the recent reduction in practice also contributes to growing comfort with the death penalty generally among folks without strong ideological views in this arena.

    Meanwhile, while I doubt the current Prez or leaders in “blue states” are likely to champion more death sentences and executions as the best response to rising homicide rates, it has been quite interesting to not hear any “red state” leaders talking up this issue. Homicides are up in many areas of Florida and Texas, and yet I do not believe I have heard Gov Abbott or Gov DeSantis talk up the need for more death sentencing and more executions. The failure of high-profile state GOP leaders to make more death sentences and executions a talking-point priority is a telling indication to me that they do not see the political potential of this issue (though maybe recent polling could change that).

    • Bill Otis says:

      Good to see you back commenting.

      Your first paragraph strikes me as plausible speculation, but we’d need to research to see if you’re right. At the same time, I have some doubts that the public reacts much differently whether there are 20 executions or 40 or 60. Compared to the number of murders, including capital murders, any of those numbers is microscopic.

      I don’t have much disagreement with your second paragraph either, but would add this. As has often and correctly been observed, tamping down on crime depends more on the prospective criminal’s assessment of the likelihood of being caught than it does on the severity of the punishment (although (a) the latter also counts, and (b) a long prison sentence has valuable incapacitating effects regardless of how much or how little deterrence it provides). That being the case, the red state governors would be well advised to do exactly what they’re doing, to wit, emphasize their opposition to the Abolish the Police movement. I might add that the blue state (and blue city) leaders see exactly the same thing (since you have to be living in a cave not to see it). Hence, even though the blue state leaders despise the cops, they have — as a number of posts here on C&C have detailed — started to replenish their police forces. This is not necessarily because they want to improve public safety or get tough on criminals. A cynic might speculate that the more important reason is that they see the handwriting on the wall for next year’s election and want to avoid the 1994 and 2010-style catastrophe they see coming if the present shocking and very visible murder surge continues much longer.

      • Douglas Berman says:

        Your second paragraph, Bill, is why I think it somewhat surprising (and perhaps telling) that we are really not hearing more “bring back an active death penalty talk” from anyone circa 2021. Emphasizing support for the death penalty proved extremely politically effective from 1975 through 2000 at every level of election, from Prez to Gov to legislators to judges at all levels. But I do not hear anyone in California stressing the death penalty in the recall Newsom effort. And lots of other big death row states are swing states that have had very few on no executions of late — e.g., Florida, Penn, NC, Ohio, Arizona — and yet I cannot think of a single prominent politician talking up the need to get the machinery of death operational again.

        • Bill Otis says:

          There is a big difference between what we see now and what we saw 1975-2000, namely, that back then blue state and blue city leaders were not backing a Defund the Police movement and now they are, sometimes more quietly and sometimes very loudly. This is delicious, low-hanging fruit for conservatives. With that on the table, there’s no need to talk about the death penalty. In addition, there are principled and sensible people who oppose capital punishment, but there is no sensible person who wants to abolish the police. Indeed, and not to put too fine a point on it, the police abolition movement is crazy. The more Joe Biden’s allies push it, the more Republicans will (and should) profit at the polls.

          And there’s one other thing. For many on the law-and-order side, the death penalty is more a symbolic than a practical question. As a practical matter, it makes very little difference in a nationwide debate whether we have 15 or 20 or 40 or 60 executions. But as a matter of principle, it makes a considerable difference whether the country (represented mainly by the federal government) retains the moral confidence to declare that there are some crimes so hideous, and so far beyond the boundaries of civilized life, that we have the right to terminate the killer. It is the unapologetic assertion of that principle, and not whether we have this number or that number of executions, or whether they’re done in State X but not State Y, that tells the tale.

          P.S. The real “machinery of death” is all too operational — murder.

  2. Daniel Garcia says:

    The general poll question about support for the death penalty almost certainly under-represents the percentage of proponents. How should these questions be asked, and how much more support would go up?

    • Here is a post on the question from the archive blog, with links to two other posts.

    • Bill Otis says:

      In addition to what Kent has said, I would recommend the following as the question to gauge the true support for abolitionism: “Do you think juries should never be allowed to impose the death penalty no matter what the circumstances of the crime — for example, if it’s child murder, torture murder, murder for hire, or multiple murder?”

      My guess is that if the question were asked that way, fewer than 20% would say that a jury should NEVER be allowed to impose the death penalty.