In 1985, Gallup began asking the question: “If you could choose between the following two approaches, which do you think is the better penalty for murder—the death penalty or life imprisonment with absolutely no possibility of parole? At that time, the death penalty was favored 56% to 34%.
In 2000, life imprisonment was slightly favored, 48% to 47%. By 2014, the death penalty had become the favorite again by 50% to 45%. But in a mere five years, American opinions shifted so that life imprisonment was favored by 60% and only 36% favored the death penalty.
“This is a pretty dramatic shift in opinion,” said Gallup Senior Editor Dr. Jeffery Jones to the Tulsa World. Jones conducted the survey.
All political affiliations shifted toward life imprisonment. The shift was 19 points for Democrats, 16 points among independents, and 10 points for Republicans. All demographic groups favored life imprisonment. Those favoring it the greatest were non-whites (72%), young adults between 18 and 34 (68%), women (66%) and college graduates (65%). Among Democrats, life imprisonment was favored 79% to 19%. The split was 60% to 35% in favor of life imprisonment among independents and 58% to 38% in favor of the death penalty among Republicans. Liberals and moderates preferred life 77% to 20% and 65% to 32%, respectively, while conservatives narrowly favored the death penalty 51% to 46%.
Americans also became less supportive of the death penalty in the abstract. When Gallup asked, “Are you in favor of the death penalty for murder?”, only 56% said yes. That was the second lowest level of support in 47 years. Only 2017, with 55% favoring the death penalty in abstract was lower.
42% said they oppose the death penalty in the abstract question. That is the highest number since 1966, when 47% opposed the death penalty.
Support for the death penalty in abstract peaked at 80% in 1994 and was at 60% or above for every year between 1976 and 2016. The last time it was lower was in March 1972, just prior to the Supreme Court declaring death penalty statues unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).
Sixty-two percent of men, but only 50% of women supported the death penalty in abstract; 61% of whites supported it, while 53% of non-whites opposed the death penalty. Young adults 18-34 were split 50% opposing to 49% supporting while 58% of those ages 35 to 54 and 59% of those 55 or over supported the death penalty.
The drop in support of the death penalty coincides with a drop in the use of the death penalty. Death sentences have declined by 85% since the mid-1990s. Annual executions have fallen by around 75% since peaking at 98 in 1999. As the American public is increasingly repulsed by the government killing its citizens, politicians and judges seem to be the parties most attached to the death penalty and the most resistant to giving it up.
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