Death Penalty Loses Majority Support for First Time in 45 Years


By: Niraj Chokshi
New York Times

For the first time in almost half a century, support for the death penalty has dipped below 50 percent in the United States.

Just 49 percent of Americans say they support capital punishment, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted from late August to early September. That represents a seven-point decline in about a year and a half. Support peaked at 80 percent in 1994.

The death penalty has had majority support among Americans for 45 years. The last time support was as low as it now stands was in 1971. Pew has surveyed Americans on the subject for the past two decades and relies on the polling organization Gallup for older data. 

Despite the large overall decline since the 1990s, attitudes toward executions differ drastically by political affiliation.

“Much of the decline in support over the past two decades has come among Democrats,” wrote Baxter Oliphant, a research associate at Pew.

Just 34 percent of Democrats support the death penalty today — less than half as many as in 1996, research shows. Support among Republicans declined over that period, too, but remains high: 72 percent back capital punishment today, down from 87 percent two decades ago.

Independents, for the first time in decades, are about evenly split on the practice.

Americans are divided on the subject by gender, generation and race. Men are more likely than women to support the death penalty; whites are much more likely than Hispanics or African-Americans to support it, the survey found. Fewer Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 support the death penalty than any other age group today.

The flagging support for the death penalty aligns with a decline in the number of executions nationwide, which peaked in 1999 when 98 people were put to death, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. There have been 15 executions so far this year, and a few more are scheduled.

Nine states have suspended capital punishment in the past five years, and 30 still allow it, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Californians will weigh repealing capital punishment when they go to the polls in November.