60% of Americans Favor Death Penalty: Pew

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Photo by Criminal Defense Network via Flickr.

The latest Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday found that a majority of Americans favor the death penalty, despite having some reservations about how it’s administered and about the prospect of putting innocent people being put to death. 

The figure represents a slight but steady decline in support from 65 percent in a poll taken nearly a year ago.

The finding appears to contradict other recent polls purporting to show larger declines in support for capital punishment, but researchers say they have reformed their methodology to provide a more accurate picture.

The poll published Tuesday shows that a majority of Americans — 60 percent — favor  the death penalty for those who are convicted of murder, and 27 percent strongly favor it. Pew Researchers made clear that the caveats expressed by poll respondents reflect other surveys on capital punishment, which show “widespread doubts about its administration, fairness and whether it deters serious crimes.” 

The survey was conducted between April 5-11 and administered through a self-reporting online survey with 5,109 U.S. adults on the Center’s American Trends Panel responding. The support was five percentage points lower than it was in August 2020, when 65 percent of people said they favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder, the report said.

The researchers also found that a majority (63 percent)  believe the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes, while 35 percent of people surveyed believe that it does. 

Another key finding of the report was that one thing has remained consistent in Pew’s research: individuals who identify with the Republican party tend to favor the death penalty more than Democrats.

Similarly, white Americans surveyed are considerably more supportive than Black Americans, while also being less concerned about racial disparities. 

When asked if Black people are more likely than white people to be sentenced to the death penalty for committing similar crimes, 56 percent agreed with that statement, while the other 41 percent of those surveyed believed instead that both groups are equally likely to be sentenced to the death penalty for committing similar crimes. 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 23 states have abolished the death penalty — including Virginia, which joined the list in late March of this year. 

See Also: Ohio Lawmakers Weigh Scrapping Death Penalty

To that end, other states seemingly don’t see an end in sight to utilizing the death penalty. 

Most recently, Arizona correction officials have procured ingredients for hydrogen cyanide — also known as the chemical used by the Nazis at Auschwitz and other extermination camps — to use an alternative method of lethal gas to kill inmates on death row. 

See Also: Arizona Adopts Lethal Nazi Gas for Executions

With all of that being said, arguably, the New York Times writes that the most intriguing part of this report wasn’t the numbers themselves — rather, the intriguing part is how the method of the poll shaped the candor of the responses. 

Methodology Matters

By using a self-administered online survey methodology instead of a live telephone interview, the Pew researchers were able to get to the heart of individuals’ moral and ethical beliefs, rather than putting someone on the spot to share a potentially controversial belief to a stranger.  

“It’s a bit of a touchy subject, it’s kind of sensitive, and admitting that you hold an opinion that has such profound implications for somebody else — not everybody wants to engage with that with a stranger,” Courtney Kennedy, Pew’s director of survey research told the New York Times, referring to questions about the death penalty.

In the past year, Pew researchers found that on certain policy-related questions with moral or ethical undertones, people’s responses “differed significantly” on a self-administered survey compared to a phone call — and this latest Pew study is a perfect example of that.  

If Pew had only reported its phone poll results last summer, it would have shown that support for capital punishment was down to 52 percent, more than 20 percentage points off its high in the 1990s,” The New York Times details.

“Instead, its online poll revealed that closer to two-thirds were in favor of it.”

The full Pew Research report can be accessed here. 

Additional Reading: Why the Death Penalty Lingers On in America


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