Keeping the death penalty at its lowest for five decades

WASHINGTON, DC – Americans’ views on the death penalty have remained relatively stable in recent years following a decline in 2017. The current 54% of American adults who say they support the death penalty for convicted murderers are essentially unchanged from past readings. four years and remains below any other measure since March 1972 (50%).

Line graph. Trend in American support for the death penalty. Fifty-four percent of Americans say they support the death penalty for someone convicted of murder. The last time support was lower was at 50% in 1972.

The latest results are based on Gallup’s annual Crime Survey, conducted October 1–19. Gallup first questioned the death penalty using this wording of the question in 1936, updating it periodically since then, including every year since 1999.

Another question on the death penalty that Gallup asked occasionally, but not in the latest poll, finds less support for the death penalty when life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is offered as an explicit alternative. This question also shows a decline in support for the death penalty compared to the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.

History of Americans’ support for capital punishment

When Gallup first asked about the death penalty in 1936, 59% said they were in favor. Majorities have always favored it, with the exception of several readings taken between 1957 and 1971, including a low of 42% in 1966. These measures came as legal experts debated the constitutional basis of the death penalty and that the United States Supreme Court had ruled on a series of challenges over how it was applied. The court struck down all existing state laws on the death penalty in its Furman v. Georgia decision. However, this judgment left open the possibility that laws written to address the concerns of the High Court about arbitrary convictions in death penalty cases could be constitutional. In 1976, the court ruled that new death penalty laws in several states were constitutionally authorized.

From that point on, support for the death penalty increased, peaking at 80% in 1994, when crime was the problem most often cited by Americans as the most significant problem facing the country. Concern over the past decades has seen renewed concern over the administration of the death penalty, with new evidence exonerating some people on death row and leading some states to impose a moratorium on executions or abolish the death penalty. These recent developments are probably a factor in declining support for the death penalty since its peak in 1994.

Politically shaped attitudes towards the death penalty

Attitudes regarding the death penalty vary the most by political party and ideological self-identification. Seventy-seven percent of Republicans, 55% of independents and 34% of Democrats support the death penalty. In addition, 70% of those who qualify their political views as conservative say they support the death penalty, compared to 57% of moderates and 28% of liberals.

In addition to political differences, the poll finds significant differences by age, with 41% of young adults aged 18 to 34 supporting it, compared with 59% of adults aged 35 and over.

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About Norman Griggs

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