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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Over Three in Five Americans Believe in Death Penalty

Over the past few years there have been many high profile cases where those on death row have been found to be innocent and some states have halted executions. In the minds of Americans, this may have had an impact as the number of those who believe in the death penalty has declined since 2003.

Currently, 63 percent of Americans believe in the death penalty while three in ten (30%) are opposed to it. Five years ago, almost seven in ten (69%) believed in it while 22 percent were opposed to it. In 1965, when The Harris Poll® first started asking this question, just under half of Americans (47%) were opposed to the death penalty while 38 percent believed in it.

These are some of the results of a Harris Poll of 1,010 adults surveyed by telephone between February 5 and 11, 2008 by Harris Interactive®.

Death Penalty as a Deterrent

One question with regard to the death penalty is whether or not it serves as a deterrent to others. Just over half (52%) of Americans believe that executing people who commit murder does not have much effect on deterring others from committing murder. Two in five (42%) say that executing people does deter others from committing murder. These numbers are almost identical to 2003 as well as 2001, so attitudes on this issue appear to be holding steady. However, this is a difference from 1976. Then, almost six in ten (59%) believed executing people deterred others while one-third (34%) believed that it did not have much effect.

Change in Number of Executions

When it comes to whether people would like to see an increase or decrease in the number of convicted criminals who are executed, there is a bit of a divide among Americans. Just over one-third (36%) believe there should be an increase while one-quarter (26%) say there should be a decrease and three in ten (31%) believe there should be no change. While the number of Americans who believe there should be an increase has not changed since 2003, the number of those saying a decrease has increased from 21 percent. Looking back a decade, in 1997 over half (53%) of Americans believed there should be an increase and just 14 percent said a decrease in the number of executions.

Convictions of Innocent People for Murder

There is one issue almost all Americans agree on 95 percent of U.S. adults say that sometimes innocent people are convicted of murder while only 5 percent believe that this never occurs. This is a number that has held steady since 1999. Among those who believe innocent people are sometimes convicted of murder, when asked how many they believe are innocent, the average is 12 out of 100 or 12 percent. In looking at this by race and ethnicity, African Americans believe more innocent people are convicted than both Whites and Hispanics (25% versus 9% and 12% respectively). Democrats also believe more innocent people are convicted than Republicans (15% versus 6%).

Now, among this large group who believe innocent people are sometimes convicted of murder, the question becomes does this change the minds of people on the death penalty. When asked to suppose they believed that quite a substantial number of innocent people are convicted of murder, over half (58%) say they would then oppose the death penalty while just over one-third (35%) would believe in it. One impact of the recent cases in the news may be the change over time on this question. In 2000, over half (53%) of those who believe innocent people are convicted of murder said they would believe in the death penalty while 36 percent said they would oppose it. [Mark Godsey]

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