New Poll shows overwhelming support for the death penalty

By Alan Bean

A new Angus-Reid poll suggests that 83% of Americans support the death penalty while only 13% oppose it. 

This distressing news illustrates how much we have changed as a nation.  In 1966, 47% opposed capital punishment while only 42% supported it.

You may be surprised to learn that support for the ultimate penalty is strongest in the “liberal” Northeast (85%) and the Midwest (86%) and weakest in the South (79%).  Incarceration rates and the actual use of the death penalty would suggest that the South is the most punitive region.  Since the reinstitution of capital punishment in 1976, there have been 464 executions in the state of Texas and virtually none in New England.  Incarceration rates in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi are at least three times as high as in the Northeast.

So why did the Angus-Reid people find that southerners are less inclined to favor the death penalty than northeasterners? 

Simple, they failed to do a racial breakdown.  Over 37% of Mississippi is black, as is 30% of Georgia and 28% of South Carolina.  You get a much different picture in the northeast where only 1% of Vermont, 7% of Massachusetts, 10% of Connecticut and 1% of New Hampshire residents are black.  African Americans are far more likely to oppose the death penalty than whites, largely because blacks are disproportionately represented on death row.

race chart 1While 56% of those executed since 1976 are white, white folks comprise 74.8% of the US population.  Blacks make up 12.4% of the US population but 35% of inmates executed since 1976.

If the Angus-Reid folks had given us a racial breakdown we would be looking at a very different picture.  But they didn’t.  Perhaps it’s because they are headquartered in Toronto where racial bias is less pronounced.  Or maybe it’s because we’re all supposed to be colorblind these days.

Whatever the case, the regional numbers in the report tell us nothing.

It is striking to notice, however, that 81% of Americans believe that innocent people have been executed, while only 39% percent of respondents believe the death penalty serves as a deterrent. 

Are Republicans more likely to hold punitive views regarding the death penalty?  Yes, but only marginally.  88% percent of Republicans and 83% of Democrats favor the death penalty.  In fact, 40% of the folks surveyed favor the death penalty for armed robbery even if no one is killed.

This shows you what death penalty opponents are up against.  America has made progress in many areas since the 1960s, but by virtually every measure we are now a far more punitive nation than we used to be. 

The takeaway from these findings is simple: unless we can change the national consensus meaningful reform will not happen.  That’s why Friends of Justice is talking is working toward a Common Peace Consensus.  In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander addresses this issue in the context of mass incarceration:

Those who believe that advocacy challenging mass incarceration can be successful without overturning the public consensus that gave rise to it are engaging in fanciful thinking, a form of denial. Isolated victories can be won—even a string of victories—but in the absence of a fundamental shift in public consciousness, the system as a whole will remain intact. To the extent that major changes are achieved without a complete shift, the system will rebound. The caste system will reemerge in a new form, just as convict leasing replaced slavery, or it will be reborn, just as mass incarceration replaced Jim Crow.

Hate to say it, but I couldn’t agree more.

4 thoughts on “New Poll shows overwhelming support for the death penalty

  1. My understanding was that support for the death penalty has been trending down in recent years, with only slightly more than half supporting it. I have to wonder about the accuracy of this poll, unless other polls show similar results.

  2. Much depends on how the question is asked. If you ask whether you prefer life without parole or capital punishment you tend to get support for the capital option in the 65-67 percent range. If you simply ask if people support the use of capital punishment, the numbers go up. Support for the death penalty is a good rough measure of how punitive the public has become. The recent swing to the right has likely produced a slight shift toward punitive, authoritarian policies of all kinds. By the way, if you ask Canadians and Brits if they support the death penalty they generally say they do, but there is little public clamor for bringing it back. I doubt the death penalty would have been abolished anywhere in the western world (with the possible exception of Italy where Catholic teaching on the subject figures strongly) if the issue had been put to a public vote. But in the 1960s, when most countries moved away from capital punishment, support and opposition was roughly equal. The same was true in the United States. In 1966, 47% opposed and only 42% approved. It took twenty years for the opposition to fall by two-thirds and support to double. Friends of Justice argues that so long as the national mood is this punitive you can’t reform the criminal justice system in any meaningful way. That means exposing the historical roots and the practical effects of the new Jim Crow.

  3. October 2010 Gallup poll shows 64% for death penalty, 29% against. This is down significantly from the 80% who supported death penalty in Gallup poll of 1997.

    Gallup poll of October 2010 when given option of life imprisonment shows 49% for death penalty, 46% life imprisonment.

    I would place more trust in the Gallup poll than the Angus-Reid poll.

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