Americans Now Support Life in Prison Over Death Penalty
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- For the first time in Gallup's 34-year trend, a majority of Americans say that life imprisonment with no possibility of parole is a better punishment for murder than the death penalty is.
The 60% to 36% advantage for life imprisonment marks a shift from the past two decades, when Americans were mostly divided in their views of the better punishment for murder. During the 1980s and 1990s, consistent majorities thought the death penalty was the better option for convicted murderers.
The Oct. 14-31 survey was conducted before a Texas state court halted the scheduled execution of Rodney Reed in mid-November. A number of prominent politicians and celebrities joined legal activist groups in lobbying Texas officials to spare Reed amid new evidence that could exonerate him.
Even as Americans have shifted to viewing life imprisonment without parole as preferable to execution, a majority still favor use of the death penalty, according to Gallup's long-term death penalty trend question, which was updated in an Oct. 1-13 poll. That question, first asked in 1936, simply asks Americans if they are "in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder," without providing an alternative option. Currently, 56% of U.S. adults say they are in favor of the death penalty for convicted murderers in response to this question.
Support for the death penalty, as measured by the historical Gallup question, has been steady over the past three years. However, it is down seven percentage points from 2014, the last time Gallup asked the life imprisonment versus death penalty question.
The percentage in favor of using the death penalty has been lower than it is now, most notably during the mid-1960s through early 1970s. A 1966 survey found 42% of Americans in favor and 47% opposed to the death penalty, the only time more have expressed opposition than support.
Growing concerns about states' just application of their death penalty statutes led the Supreme Court to effectively impose a moratorium on the death penalty in the U.S. in 1972. Four years later, when support for the death penalty had climbed to 66%, the Supreme Court upheld revised state death penalty laws. Executions resumed in the U.S. in 1977.
At least six in 10 Americans favored the death penalty from 1976 through 2016, peaking at 80% in 1994, when crime was a top concern for Americans.
Shifts Toward Favoring Life Imprisonment Apparent in All Major Subgroups
Since 2014, when Gallup last asked Americans to choose between life imprisonment with no parole and the death penalty, all key subgroups show increased preferences for life imprisonment. This includes increases of 19 points among Democrats, 16 points among independents, and 10 points among Republicans.
Five years ago, most Democrats already favored life imprisonment to the death penalty, but now nearly eight in 10 do. Independents' preferences have flipped, from being slightly pro-death penalty in 2014 to favoring life imprisonment now. Republicans remain in favor of the death penalty, but to a lesser degree.
Republicans are one of the rare groups in society to indicate a preference for the death penalty over life imprisonment. Political conservatives (51%) are another.
Democrats and political liberals (77%) are two of the subgroups most likely to believe life imprisonment is a better punishment for murder than the death penalty. Postgraduates (73%), nonwhites (72%) and young adults (70% of those aged 18-29) are other groups who widely believe life imprisonment is preferable to execution.
Two-thirds of women, versus 53% of men, advocate punishing convicted murderers by means of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty.
Americans' opinions of the death penalty, which have shown many shifts over the past 80 years, continue to evolve. The percentage of Americans who are in favor of the death penalty, generally, has fallen to 45-year lows. And when given an explicit alternative, for the first time in at least 30 years, more say life imprisonment with no possibility of parole is a better punishment for murder than the death penalty.
As public opinion has changed on the death penalty, so has state law. Five states have abolished the death penalty this decade, leaving 29 where it is legal. Several states where the death penalty is legal have instituted moratoriums on its use or are considering abolishing it. Many recent cases that have cast doubt on death penalty convictions in light of new evidence may be helping to move public opinion away from it.
by Jeffrey M. Jones
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