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Social & Policy Issues
Most Americans Continue to Say Death Penalty Morally OK
Social & Policy Issues

Most Americans Continue to Say Death Penalty Morally OK

by Art Swift

Story Highlights

  • Sixty percent in U.S. say death penalty morally acceptable
  • A third of Americans say the procedure is morally wrong

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As the death penalty continues to lose support in state houses across America, with Nebraska banning the practice last week, 60% of Americans say the death penalty is morally acceptable. While this measure has remained relatively stable over time, the current 60% is on the lower end of acceptance of the death penalty nationwide since Gallup began measuring it in 2001.

Americans' Views of the Death Penalty as Morally Acceptable

Use of the death penalty has been waning for several years. The 35 inmates receiving the ultimate penalty last year in the U.S. was the lowest in 20 years, and the 72 new death sentences delivered in 2014 were the fewest in modern history. Despite these changes, a majority of Americans continue to say they favor the death penalty as punishment for murder, and in the May Gallup Values and Beliefs poll, a clear majority of Americans still say it is morally acceptable to impose the death penalty. Americans' views on the morality of the practice have generally held steady even in light of botched executions, lengthy appeals cases, seven states banning the procedure since 2007 and many states imposing "open-ended moratoriums" on the practice.

When Gallup began asking this question in 2001, 63% said it was morally acceptable, while 27% said it was morally wrong. These percentages recorded in 2001 are not that different from today, though a third of Americans now say the death penalty is morally wrong. The biggest wave of support for its acceptability came in 2006, at 71%, while the low mark was in 2012, at 58%.

Midwest Drops Most in Acceptability of Death Penalty

The Nebraska legislature, officially nonpartisan but dominated by Republicans, voted in April to ban the death penalty. Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed the bill, but the legislature overrode Ricketts' veto in May. Illinois, another Midwestern state, also banned the death penalty in 2011. And in 2015, the Midwest experienced the sharpest drop among U.S. regions, falling from 69% to 60%.

The South has the highest percentage of Americans who believe the death penalty is morally acceptable of any U.S. region, at 63%.

Moral Acceptability of the Death Penalty in U.S., by Region

The East has the lowest percentage of those who believe the death penalty is morally acceptable, at 53%, though this is still a majority. Maryland banned the practice in 2013, and New York and New Jersey both ended the death penalty in 2007, leaving only a handful of Eastern states in which capital punishment is still legal.

Republicans Still More Accepting of Death Penalty Than Democrats

Since 2001, the number of Republicans saying the death penalty is morally acceptable has always outweighed Democrats. This year, there is a fairly significant partisan divide on this topic -- 33 percentage points -- as 76% of Republicans express moral acceptance of this practice, while 43% of Democrats say the same.

Moral Acceptability of Death Penalty in U.S., by Party ID

Bottom Line

The death penalty has been a topic of considerable public debate for some time. During an era when overall public support for the death penalty was lower than it is today, the practice was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972, but reinstated in 1976. Since then, though many inmates have been executed, it can sometimes take decades for condemned inmates to be put to death. In the last 50 years, advancements in the collection and analysis of DNA have helped to exonerate many prisoners. The American public has also witnessed botched executions, with the procedure sometimes taking two hours or more to reach the end result.

A recent cover story in Time magazine argues that the death penalty will someday be a thing of the past as a result of the cost of death row incarceration and appeals, Supreme Court challenges and a crime rate that continues to drop. Faced with these expectations and the complicated factors involved in the actual application of the death penalty, Americans still have not materially altered their opinion of whether the death penalty is morally right.

Like so much else in American political life, this is a partisan issue, with the percentage of Democrats who say it is morally acceptable plummeting even further in the past year.

Moral acceptance may remain high even as the death penalty dwindles in actual application. There are times when Americans appear to unite behind a death penalty conviction -- as in the case of the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and before him, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh -- and thus the average American might want the option preserved for such situations.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted May 6-10, 2015, with a random sample of 1,024 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

Learn more about how Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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