By William Fisher
A clear majority of U.S. voters-- 61 per cent -- would choose a punishment other than death for murder if given a choice, the Death Penalty Information Center said today as it released the results of “one of the most comprehensive studies ever conducted” of Americans’ views on the death penalty.
In a national poll of 1,500 registered voters conducted by Lake Research Partners, alternative punishments to execution included life with no possibility of parole and with restitution to the victim’s family (39 per cent), life with no possibility of parole (13 per cent), or life with the possibility of parole (9 per cent).
The researchers said the survey “shows growing support for alternatives to the death penalty compared with previous polls.”
The research shows that in states with the death penalty, a plurality of voters said it would make no difference in their vote if a representative supported repeal of the death penalty; and a majority (62 per cent) said either it would make no difference (38 per cent) or they would be more likely to vote for such a representative (24 per cent).
“For decades, politicians have equated being tough on crime with support for the death penalty, but this research suggests voters want their elected officials to be smart on crime, use tax dollars wisely, and fund the services they care about the most. Capital punishment is not a high priority for voters and is not the ‘third rail’ of politics,” Richard Dieter, Executive Director of Death Penalty Information Center told IPS during a telephone news conference.
“We see a real openness to considering life with no possibility for parole as a punishment for murder and a real awareness among Americans of the many problems with the death penalty. It is likely we will see Americans moving away from support for the death penalty as states and local governments grapple with tight budgets and as today’s younger voters and Latinos move into the core of the electorate,” said pollster Celinda Lake.
Since the start of 2009, many states, such as Maryland, Colorado, Connecticut, Montana, Kansas, and New Mexico considered legislation to repeal the death penalty, and it is expected that trend will continue in 2011.
Voters ranked the death penalty the lowest on a list of budget priorities and expressed strong support for replacing the death penalty with life without parole, if the money saved was used to fund crime prevention programs.
In states with the death penalty, a plurality of voters said it would make no difference in their vote if a representative supported repeal of the death penalty; and a majority said either it would make no difference or they would be more likely to vote for such a representative. In 2011, about five states are expected to consider repeal legislation.
The poll dug deeply into Americans’ thinking about the death penalty and the problems they see in this punishment. For decades, elected officials have equated being tough on crime with support for the death penalty, but this research shows that capital punishment may no longer be a “third rail” of politics.
Additional key findings from the polling research include:
Cost emerged as an important concern for a strong majority of Americans. Sixty-eight percent said cost was a very or somewhat convincing argument against the death penalty. Voters ranked emergency services, creating jobs, police and crime prevention, schools and libraries, public health care services, and roads and transportation as more important budget priorities than the death penalty.
A strong majority of respondents (65 per cent) would favor replacing the death penalty with life with no possibility of parole if the money saved were used to fund crime prevention programs.
Hispanic voters were among those most willing to replace the death penalty with an alternative punishment. They responded most strongly to moral objections to the death penalty rooted in faith, as well as the argument that the death penalty is particularly unfair along racial lines.
The poll explored the information that the public uses to make up its mind about the death penalty and the problems they see with this punishment.
Some of the public’s top concerns about the death penalty were that it is applied unevenly and unfairly; it subjects victims’ families to lengthy trials and years of appeals that interfere with the healing process; and it risks executing the innocent.
Spending millions of dollars on the death penalty, at a time when states are cutting back on services such as police forces, schools, and public health, and when life in prison would cost less, was also of concern to voters.
Moral and religious objections to the death penalty were strong among Latino and Catholic voters.
The nationwide poll was conducted in May 2010 with a margin of error of +/- 2.5%
Death Penalty Information Center, founded in 1990, is a non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment.