A Gallup poll found this week that support for the death penalty in America is
the lowest it’s been in 40 yearsand has dropped sharply since its peak at 80% in 1994.
These days, roughly 60% of Americans support the death penalty for convicted killers, the lowest level of support since 1972 when 57% of people were in favour.
We spoke to death penalty expert Douglas Berman, who attributed the drop in support to three big factors: high-profile exonerations of death row inmates; the disappearance of “tough on crime” attitudes popular in the ’80s and ’90s; and the successful repeal of the death penalty in a number of U.S. states.
“Really over the last decade there has been a growing awareness of mistakes in the context of death row prosecutions and exonerations that tend to be very high-profile,” said Berman, a law professor at The Ohio State University and founder of the Sentencing and Law Policy blog.
A total of 142 death row prisoners in America have been exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. These exonerees sometimes become outspoken opponents of the death penalty and can be very compelling in swaying public opinion.
The public is also less enamoured of “tough on crime” policies than it used to, partly because America has gotten much safer in the past 20 years. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1988, was a vocal opponent of the death penalty and famously got hammered for being “soft on crime.”
These days, Berman said, “Crime is much less salient of a political issue.”
There’s also little evidence that the death penalty does anything to deter crime anyway. Currently 18 states have banned capital punishment. “There’s not a lot of evidence that crime spikes up dramatically” when a state stops executing people, Berman said. (In fact, the region with the most executions — the South — is also the most violent part of the country.)
Anti-death penalty advocates in states that have banned the death penalty have also successfully highlighted problems with capial punishment, such as high costs and the difficulty in administering it fairly. These arguments have been particularly successful at swaying independent voters, Berman noted.
It may be surprising then that liberal California rejected an attempt to repeal the death penalty last year. The loss for death penalty opponents came even as people in the state grew concerned about the costs of capital punishment, the Associated Press noted.
“It remains the case that, even in a blue state,” Berman said, “there is still this general support for the death penalty at least on the books as kind of a symbolism of being tough on the worst offenders.”