September 29, 2016

Support for death penalty lowest in more than four decades

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%) now favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 42% oppose it. Support has dropped 7 percentage points since March 2015, from 56%. Public support for capital punishment peaked in the mid-1990s, when eight-in-ten Americans (80% in 1994) favored the death penalty and fewer than two-in-ten were opposed (16%). Opposition to the death penalty is now the highest it has been since 1972.

Though support for the death penalty has declined across most groups, a Pew Research Center survey conducted Aug. 23-Sept. 2 among 1,201 adults finds that most Republicans continue to largely favor its use in cases of murder, while most Democrats oppose it. By more than two-to-one, more Republicans (72%) than Democrats (34%) currently favor the death penalty.

Two decades ago, when majorities in both parties favored the death penalty, the partisan gap was only 16 percentage points (87% of Republicans vs. 71% of Democrats).

And, for the first time in decades, independents are as likely to oppose the use of the death penalty (45%) as they are to favor it (44%). The share of independents who support capital punishment has fallen 13 points since last year (from 57%).

This shift in views among independents is particularly pronounced among those who lean toward the Democratic Party (a 10-point decrease in support) and those who do not lean to either party (down 16 points). Support for the death penalty among independents who lean toward the GOP is little changed from March 2015 (73% now, 70% then).

Even as support for the death penalty has declined across nearly all groups, demographic differences remain: Men are more likely to back the use of the death penalty than women, white Americans are more supportive than blacks and Hispanics, and attitudes on the issue also differ by age, education and along religious lines.

More than half of men (55%) say they are in favor of the death penalty and 38% are opposed. Women’s views are more divided: 43% favor the death penalty, 45% oppose it.

A 57% majority of whites favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder (down from 63% last year). But blacks and Hispanics support it at much lower rates: Just 29% of blacks and 36% of Hispanics favor capital punishment.

There are only modest difference by age and education in support for the death penalty, with 18- to 29-year-olds somewhat less likely to support it (42% favor) than those in older age groups (51% of those 30 and older). Those without a college degree are more likely than those with at least a college degree to favor the use of the death penalty in cases of murder (51% vs. 43%).

White evangelical Protestants continue to back the use of the death penalty by a wide margin (69% favor, 26% oppose). White mainline Protestants also are substantially more likely to support (60%) than oppose (31%) the death penalty. But among Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated, opinion is more divided: 43% of Catholics favor capital punishment, while 46% oppose it. And while 50% of those who are religiously unaffiliated oppose the death penalty, 40% support it.

A more detailed study last year of attitudes toward capital punishment found that 63% of the public thought the death penalty was morally justified, but majorities said there was some risk of an innocent person being put to death (71%) and that the death penalty does not deter serious crime (61%).

Note: View the methodology for the Aug. 23-Sept. 2 survey and the topline. (PDF).

Topics: Gender, Race and Ethnicity, Supreme Court, Death Penalty, Social Values

  1. Photo of Baxter Oliphant

    is a research associate focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous10 months ago

    Capital punishment does not reduce crime. Too many innocents reach death row and governors are too incompetent to pardon them. It costs too much money. It’s unconstitutional (How can you argue injecting someone with poison isn’t cruel and unusual punishment?) And I quiet frankly don’t want the government in the business of killing people. I’m glad to see this change in social beliefs in the country and hope it continues.

  2. dlee t10 months ago

    Try doing the survey without TX and see the percentages. Scalia was proud to say that the state can kill innocent prisoners as long as they had a trial. That is the only constitutional guarantee, a trial, not justice, but a trial, and kangaroos may well be your peers.

  3. Anonymous10 months ago

    I still support the death penalty, it maintains a balance that without will cause lack of force
    to maintain a law abiding society.

    1. Anonymous10 months ago

      Every country in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have abolished capital punishment. All of these nations have lower homicide rates than the USA. You can have a law-abiding society without the death penalty.

      1. Anonymous10 months ago

        Actually, every country in all of Europe has abolished the death penalty except Belarus and Kazakhstan. And Kazakhstan reserves it only during wartime, with no capital punishment at peacetime.