A new Pew Research poll finds that 60 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder. This result is a stunning turnaround. Less than five years ago, Pew found that only 49 percent of Americans favored the death penalty for convicted murderers. This was the lowest level of support in more than four decades.
The October 2016 poll showed 42 percent opposed to the death penalty. The latest poll shows 39 percent opposed. So we have moved from a narrow 7 percentage point favorability margin to a margin of 21 percentage points.
What accounts for the difference? It must be the surge in violent crime, mustn’t it?
That’s Bill Otis’ view:
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.
In reporting on the Pew survey, The Hill provides this headline: “Poll: Majority of Americans favor death penalty despite some reservations.” The headline fails to inform readers that this majority, at 60 percent, is robust. And the story itself fails to mention that not long ago, a majority did not favor the death penalty.
I agree with Bill that a better headline for the story would be: “Support for the death penalty surges in less than five years.”
It’s true that most Americans have “some reservations” about the death penalty. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to live in a country that supports executions unreservedly. As Bill says, “The death penalty is strong medicine. No normal person relishes the prospect of executing a fellow creature.” Nor can we guarantee that no innocent person will ever be executed.
Thus, American public opinion is right where it should be — supporting the death penalty, but with reservations.
Support is likely to grow unless violent crime decreases. And with more and more criminals being released early from jail (or never being sent there) and with less and less policing of crime-riddled neighborhoods, it seems unlikely that violent crime will decrease.
“Law and order” should be a winning issue for Republicans going forward, if the party backs away from the soft-sentencing posture embraced by former president Trump and key GOP legislators.