PRINCETON, NJ -- Last week's recommendation by a Maryland commission that the state's death penalty law be repealed contrasts with broad U.S. public support for the punishment. According to Gallup's annual Crime survey in October, 64% favor of Americans favor the death penalty for someone convicted of murder, while just 30% oppose it.
In addition to the majority of Americans who support the death penalty, nearly half (48%) believe it is not imposed often enough. Only 21% of Americans say it is imposed too often, with a nearly equal number, 23%, saying it is imposed about the right amount of time.
The death penalty is favored by most Republicans nationwide, but it also receives the general support of a solid majority of independents and more than half of Democrats.
In its preliminary report -- the final report will be issued next month -- the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment cited evidence that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent to crime, and that it is racially biased in its application. Americans don't share the same view on at least one of these arguments. The slight majority of Americans in the Oct. 3-5, 2008, poll -- 54% -- say they believe the death penalty is applied fairly in the country today -- a rough indication that Americans don't perceive bias to be a major problem with the death penalty system.
On the other hand, previous Gallup research has found that most Americans believe the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. According to a May 2006 Gallup Poll, only 34% said it was a deterrent, while 64% disagreed. Open-ended questions asked in previous years have shown that most Americans who favor the death penalty do so because they believe it provides an "eye for an eye" type of justice.
Although the current 64% support for capital punishment is high, support is a bit lower than it has been at other times over the past decade, when 69% or 70% were in favor. Those readings, in turn, are lower than the ones from the 1980s and 1990s, when support averaged 75%. The highest individual measure of public support for the death penalty in Gallup's records is 80%, recorded 14 years ago in September 1994.
Death penalty support was substantially lower from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. As Gallup has previously reported, it appears that Supreme Court rulings on the death penalty in the 1970s may have sparked increased public support for the punishment, starting around 1976.
Death Penalty vs. Life in Prison
Over the years, Gallup has consistently found lower support for the death penalty when it is offered as an alternative to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. Most recently, in May 2006, Gallup found 47% naming the death penalty as the better penalty for murder, versus 48% preferring life imprisonment.
The majority of Americans continue to support the use of the death penalty as the punishment for murder. Most Americans (71%) also say the death penalty is used either about the right amount or not often enough.
While Americans generally agree that the death penalty is not a deterrent, and, as previous Gallup research has shown, widely acknowledge that some innocent people have been executed, most nevertheless support the death penalty as punishment for murder. The reason is very likely their concept of justice. According to a 2003 Gallup study, close to half of Americans who supported the death penalty cited some aspect of retribution for the crime as the reason.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,011 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 3-5, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.