Should the government execute convicted murderers? The morality of the death penalty has been a significant public policy debate for many years in the United States. However, there is evidence that public attitudes on the practice have been changing, as well as public policy itself. Change may be coming to the death penalty.
Capital punishment has been inflicted on convicted criminals in the United States since the beginning of the republic. Early American leaders opposed “cruel and unusual punishment,” as indicated in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but they did not consider capital punishment itself to fall in that category. However, there was a trend towards states in the late 1700s and early 1800s to reduce the types of offenses that were punishable by death.
It was only in the 20th century that a trend began among states to ban the death penalty. In 1914, only three states had no death penalty. Today, 18 states fall in that category. One-third of those states have abolished the death penalty in the past seven years. In other states, capital punishment is on hold. The governors of Oregon and Washington announced moratoriums on capital punishment, while courts in Arkansas and Kentucky recently ruled invalid current state laws on capital punishment.
Not only have some policymakers changed their minds on the death penalty, but so has the public. Public support for the death penalty dropped through the mid-20th century. By the late 1960s, opponents of the death penalty were as numerous as proponents, according to Gallup polls. Then, increased crime rates, high profile trials, and public concern about law and order drove public support for the death penalty to even greater levels. Through the 1970s and 1980s, public support for the death penalty as punishment for murder rose to a high of 78 percent by the mid-1990s.
Since then, however, the public has shifted once again. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 55 percent of Americans favored the death penalty. That is the lowest level of approval for the death penalty since the 1970s.
Why the change?
One cause may be declining murder rates. In 2012, the murder rate in the United States was 4.7 per 100,000 people. It was 5.6 in 2002 and 9.3 in 1992. Fewer murders could translate into less public fear about violent crime.
Another cause, and one related to the crime rate, may be the decline in the number of executions in the United States. According to a new report by Amnesty International, 39 executions occurred in 2013 as compared with a high of 98 executions in 1999. While 260 executions occurred in the period of 2008-2013, there were 453 in the period of 1998-2003. Fewer executions may mean less news coverage and less attention to the convicted criminal and the crime he or she committed.
Still another is the repetition of news stories about DNA testing and false convictions overturned by such testing. These stories raise concerns about whether the death penalty leads to the execution of innocent persons. Since the death penalty, unlike even life without parole, is a final punishment with no opportunity for reconsideration, its application becomes problematic when later research determines innocence on the part of a now executed person.
Will the public shift once again? Perhaps. But the fact that the group most opposed to the death penalty is young people under 30 may mean that, unless their views change over time, death penalty support may erode even further. And that may translate into the abolition of the death penalty becoming a campaign issue in state elections, more states eliminating the practice, and perhaps even the U.S. Supreme Court declaring it as unconstitutional.
The death penalty itself is not on death row. After all, a majority of Americans still support it. But the change in policymakers’ views, as well as public opinion, suggest the debate over the death penalty may just be heating up.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.