As the Supreme Court prepares to hear the first of two death penalty cases in this year’s term, the share of Americans who support the death penalty for people convicted of murder is now at its lowest point in more than four decades. Only about half of Americans (49 percent) now favor the death penalty, while 42 percent oppose it. Support has dropped seven points since March 2015, from 56 percent.
Public support for capital punishment peaked in the mid-1990s, when eight in ten favored the death penalty and only 16 percent stood in opposition. Current opposition stands at its highest level since 1972.
Pew Research has found that Republicans favor the death penalty by 72 percent. Only 34 percent of Democrats agree. Two decades ago, when majorities of both parties favored the death penalty, the partisan gap was only 16 percentage points (87 percent vs. 71 percent). Meanwhile, independents are split on the issue, 45-44 percent.
While Pew Research doesn’t suggest reasons for the shift, they do give more demographic details. The death penalty finds more support among men than women, whites than minorities, and older citizens than younger ones. The less educated you are, the more likely you are to favor the death penalty.
Interestingly, white evangelicals, self-described as “pro-life,” are the most ardent supporters of the death penalty (69-26 percent). White mainline Protestants are in support, but to a lesser degree (60-31 percent). Catholics are evenly split on the issue, and the irreligious are strongly against it.
The strongest reason given by supporters in another poll was that the death penalty is “morally justified,” while opponents claim there is too much risk of putting an innocent person to death, and they point to evidence that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime.
About the Author
Baxter Oliphant is a young scholar from Princeton University. He blogs on current events and serves as a writer for Pew Research.