death penalty

Americans Are Souring on Capital Punishment. Will It Last?

Protesters opposed to the death penalty.
Protesters opposed to the death penalty. Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Since the mid-1980s, Gallup has been tracking Americans’ enthusiasm for capital punishment versus life imprisonment as their preferred consequence for people convicted of murder. A lot has changed in the decades since: Crime rates have spiked and then plummeted, being “tough on crime” has faded as the go-to argument for why a prosecutor, judge, or presidential candidate deserves your vote — at least in some places — and stories of wrongful convictions leading to unjust death sentences have become a regular counterweight to propagandizing about the grisly crimes for which many death-row inmates have been convicted. Yet while 56 percent of Americans still believe the death penalty should remain an option in murder cases, it is today, for the first time in the history of Gallup’s polling, a minority preference by a hefty margin. Sixty percent of Americans today say they prefer life imprisonment to the death penalty for people convicted of murder, compared to 36 percent for the reverse — a dramatic swing from even a few years ago. (In 2014, the last time Gallup asked this question, 45 percent of people preferred life imprisonment, while 50 percent preferred execution.)

Both of these positions — in favor of the death penalty over life imprisonment and vice versa — have hovered in the 45-to-49 percent range over the past decade, and preference for life imprisonment has even briefly, albeit narrowly, outstripped capital punishment once before, in 2007. But Monday’s report marks the first time the majority of Americans have reported a preference for life imprisonment, while preference for the death penalty has never been recorded at a lower rate. This is cause for reserved plaudits. After all, it’s hard to fully celebrate the waning popularity of capital punishment, relatively speaking, when the surging alternative is condemning human beings to environments of sustained torture for the rest of their lives.

But while Americans’ taste for punishment remains fairly extreme in general, and the polling results might have been more revealing had a wider range of options been presented (for example, shorter prison sentences paired with some kind of restorative-justice process), these findings appear to suggest a growing openness to the concept that a person’s life shouldn’t be defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done. This sentiment is almost certainly conditional, as the history of Gallup’s polling suggests. One merely has to glance at the charts documenting how the preference for the death penalty has fluctuated over time to determine when Americans were at their most anxious about crime — namely, during the late 1980s through the early-to-mid-1990s, when their zeal for capital punishment was spiking apace with crime rates, George H.W. Bush was invoking Willie Horton in a successful bid to beat Michael Dukakis for the presidency, and Bill Clinton was signing his 1994 crime bill into law two years after his infamous photo op at Georgia’s Stone Mountain Correctional Facility with a cluster of chained prisoners positioned in the background.

That is to say, it’s reasonable to conclude that — with national crime rates at a multi-decade low — Americans are more open to alternatives to execution today partly because they feel safer than they have in a long time. This calculus could very easily swing in the other direction. Rising crime rates could precipitate increased support for executions in the future. And, as during the 1990s, it would be more of an emotional response than a logical one: There remains no evidence that capital punishment prevents crime, and polling from the Pew Research Center in 2015 shows that Americans recognize this and that the risk of executing innocent people persists, but they insist nevertheless that the death penalty is morally justified. Its morality, of course, is one of the most consistent bases on which it is disputed. Attorney and death-penalty abolitionist Bryan Stevenson often tells a story about an interaction he once had with a German scholar about capital punishment: She noted to him that state-sponsored executions would be unthinkable in Germany because the Holocaust had nullified the state’s moral legitimacy to have them. Stevenson argues that the same should hold for the U.S., which, a mere 150 years after emancipation and 60 years after the legal fall of Jim Crow, executes black people at disproportionate rates.

But Americans’ souring on capital punishment of late seems especially significant in light of the Trump administration’s commitment to accelerating it. In July, the president and Attorney General William Barr promised to overturn an informal moratorium on executing federal prisoners, which has been in place since 2003. Starting in December, the administration aims to start killing again; this despite vocal objections from scores of family members of victims murdered by the very men Trump plans to execute. Earlier this month, they sent letters imploring him to reconsider his decision. “We want a justice system that holds people who commit violence accountable, reduces crime, provides healing, and is responsive to the needs of survivors,” reads one of the letters, which were reviewed by the Washington Post. “On all these measures, the death penalty fails.”

The president is cynically banking on this decision benefiting him politically: Republicans favor the death penalty more than Democrats do, and in Gallup’s poll they remain among the few subgroups that still prefer it to life imprisonment. They are also Trump’s base and give him consistently high job-approval ratings; shoring up their support is vital to his reelection prospects in 2020. But Gallup’s poll also found cracks emerging in their enthusiasm for the practice: In 2014, 68 percent preferred capital punishment to life in prison; 58 percent feel the same today. It may no longer be such an outlandish notion that we’re nearing a point, as a country, when promising to kill more people isn’t a surefire way of galvanizing supporters. In the meantime, the status quo remains one marked by bloodlust and cruelty, of disregard for the chance of innocent deaths — a 2014 study from the National Academy of Sciences estimated that, at the current rate, 4.1 percent of people now on death row will eventually be exonerated — and of legislators who are all too willing to indulge the punitive instincts of their constituents. Perhaps Gallup’s findings herald an alternate trend. Or perhaps the apparent shift is dependent on Americans’ easily triggered capacity for fear.

Americans Are Souring on Capital Punishment. Will It Last?