Understanding Americans' Support for the Death Penalty

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup Poll Managing Editor

According to a recent Gallup Poll News Release, roughly 7 in 10 Americans support the death penalty for those convicted of murder. In the last few years, support has risen, even though the application of the death penalty in the United States remains controversial. A new Gallup Poll asked Americans for their views on the death penalty, but also followed up by asking them why they hold the opinions they do. The results show that most death penalty supporters feel that execution is a justifiable punishment for those who have been convicted of murder, given that they have taken someone else's life. The most common response among death penalty opponents is that it is simply wrong to take a life. A closer look at support for the death penalty also shows great divides in support by race, political attitudes, and to a lesser extent, gender and education.

In a May 19-21 poll*, Gallup asked Americans why they favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder. More than half of those who favor the death penalty cite something about revenge (i.e., "an eye for an eye", 37%), the convicted deserving to be executed (13%), justice (4%), or fair punishment (3%) as their reason for supporting the death penalty. Eleven percent of supporters cite saving taxpayers money because executed prisoners would not have to be incarcerated. Although deterrance is often mentioned as a major benefit to society of executing those convicted of murder, only 11% of death penalty supporters volunteer that as a reason for supporting it. Seven percent of those who favor the death penalty do so because they believe it keeps the criminal from repeating the crime.

Why do you favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder? [Open-ended]

BASED ON --715—WHO FAVOR THE DEATH PENALTY FOR PERSONS CONVICTED OF MURDER

 

May 19-21, 2003

%

An eye for an eye/They took a life/Fits the crime

37

They deserve it

13

Save taxpayers money/Cost associated with prison

11

Deterrent for potential crimes/Set an example

11

They will repeat crime/Keep them from repeating it

7

Biblical reasons

5

Depends on the type of crime they commit

4

Serve justice

4

Fair punishment

3

If there's no doubt the person committed the crime

3

Would help/benefit families of victims

2

Support/believe in death penalty

2

Don't believe they can be rehabilitated

2

Life sentences don't always mean life in prison

1

Relieves prison overcrowding

1

Other

4

No opinion

2

These explanations for support of the death penalty are not new. In fact, at least half of death penalty supporters have mentioned something about revenge or just punishment as their reason for supporting the death penalty in polls dating back to 2000.

Reasons Given for Support of Death Penalty, 2000-2003 Gallup Polls

 

May
19-21,
2003

Feb
19-21,
2001

Feb
14-15,
2000

%

%

%

An eye for an eye/ They took a life/ Fits the crime

37

48

40

 

They deserve it

13

6

5

 

Save taxpayers money/ Cost associated with prison

11

20

12

Deterrent for potential crimes/ Set an example

11

10

8

They will repeat crime/ Keep them from repeating it

7

6

4

 

Biblical reasons

5

3

3

 

Depends on the type of crime they commit

4

6

6

Serve justice

4

1

3

Fair punishment

3

1

6

If there's no doubt the person committed the crime

3

2

--

 

Would help/ benefit families of victims

2

1

--

Support/believe in death penalty

2

6

--

Don't believe they can be rehabilitated

2

2

1

Life sentences don't always mean life in prison

1

2

--

 

Relieves prison overcrowding

1

2

--

Other

4

3

10

 

No opinion

2

1

3

Almost half (46%) of those who oppose the death penalty say they do so because it is "wrong to take a life." A quarter of death penalty opponents say that the person could be wrongly convicted. Thirteen percent of death penalty opponents say that the punishment should be left to God rather than the criminal justice system. Only a small percentage of opponents mention anything about rehabilitating criminals or an unfair application of the death penalty, even though it is widely known that defendants from minority groups are far more likely to receive the death penalty than white defendants.

Why do you oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder? [Open-ended]

BASED ON --277—WHO OPPOSE THE DEATH PENALTY FOR PERSONS CONVICTED OF MURDER

 

May
19-21,
2003

%

Wrong to take a life

46

Persons may be wrongly convicted

25

Punishment should be left to God/religious belief

13

Need to pay/suffer longer/think about their crime

5

Possibility of rehabilitation

5

Depends on the circumstances

4

Unfair application of death penalty

4

Does not deter people from committing murder

4

Other

3

No opinion

4

When last asked in 1991, the most common reason given by death penalty opponents for their opposition was also that it was wrong to take a life. But a growing proportion of opponents now raise the issue of incorrect convictions (25% in 2003 compared with 11% in 1991). This could very well be a result of the news stories in the last several years that showed some death row prisoners, many in Illinois, were later proved not guilty of the crime they committed once DNA evidence became available.

Reasons Given to Oppose the Death Penalty, 1991-2003 Gallup Polls

 

May
19-21,
2003

Jun
13-16,
1991

%

%

Wrong to take a life

46

41

Persons may be wrongly convicted

25

11

Punishment should be left to God/religious belief

13

17

Need to pay/suffer longer/think about their crime

5

--

Possibility of rehabilitation

5

6

Depends on the circumstances

4

--

Unfair application of death penalty

4

6

Does not deter people from committing murder

4

7

Other

3

16

No opinion

4

6

Racial, Gender and Political Gaps Evident in Support for Death Penalty

In the past 13 months, from May 2002 to May 2003, Gallup has asked Americans about their views on the death penalty four times. The large combined total of 2,979 cases included in these polls provides the basis for a detailed look at support for the death penalty by subgroup.

In the four polls overall**, 71% of Americans were in favor of the death penalty, and 26% were opposed. The data show some major differences by subgroup, with the most pronounced differences by race, political partisanship, and ideology. But differences are also apparent by gender and education. Specifically,

  • Men are more likely than women to favor the death penalty, by a 76% to 66% margin.
  • Seventy-five percent of whites favor the death penalty, compared with just 46% of blacks (48% of blacks oppose the death penalty).
  • Support for the death penalty does not appear to vary significantly by age. Among all age groups, roughly 7 in 10 Americans support the death penalty.
  • Educational differences exist, but only among the most highly educated. Fifty-eight percent of Americans with a postgraduate education favor the death penalty, compared with about 7 in 10 of those at all other levels of educational attainment.
  • Roughly 8 in 10 Republicans (82%) favor the death penalty, compared with 69% of independents and 62% of Democrats.
  • Seventy-eight percent of conservatives favor the death penalty, compared with 72% of moderates and 57% of liberals.
  • Support for the death penalty is slightly higher among those residing in the South (75%) and West (74%) than among those residing in the Midwest (68%) and East (65%).

Support for the Death Penalty by Subgroup

Favor

Oppose

N

%

%

Overall

71

26

2,979

Republican

82

16

1,018

Conservative

78

30

1,149

Men

76

22

1,434

White

75

22

2,419

Some college education

74

24

809

High school education or less

73

23

1,034

Household income $50,000-$74,999

73

23

584

30- to 49-years-old

72

25

1,174

50- to 64-years-old

72

26

742

Household income less than $20,000

72

23

416

Moderate

72

24

1,200

18- to 29-years-old

71

27

482

College graduate only

71

26

540

Household income $30,000-$49,999

71

27

669

Household income $75,000+

70

27

726

Household income $20,000-$29,999

69

29

395

Independent

69

28

984

65 years and older

68

26

538

Women

66

30

1,545

Democrat

62

34

941

Postgraduate education

58

39

585

Liberal

57

41

596

Black

46

48

240

Bottom Line

At a very basic level, most Americans express support for the death penalty (although support is lower when respondents are given a choice of the death penalty or life imprisonment with no possibility of parole). Support for the death penalty is probably largely due to the appeal of fairness, or revenge, to many Americans when considering the proper punishment for those convicted of murder. Even though many Americans recognize that innocent people are sentenced to death, this does not apparently affect the public's basic views on capital punishment. It is unclear, as well, if subgroups with lower levels of support for the death penalty do so because of a greater sensitivity to -- or a realization of -- mistakes in the process, or just to a more generally liberal political outlook.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,014 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 19-21, 2003. For results based on the sample of 715 adults who favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4%. For results based on the sample of 277 adults who oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±6%.

**Results are based on the combined data from surveys conducted May 6-9, 2002, Oct. 14-17, 2002, May 5-7 2003, and May 19-21, 2003, each of approximately 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older. For this combined sample, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2%, though it is higher in each subgroup.

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