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Public Opinion and the Death Penalty: The Great Deception

As part of its International Legal Issues series, the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide recently released a new background factsheet on public opinion and the death penalty.

Politicians in retentionist death penalty countries often resist abolition by claiming that a majority of the population supports the death penalty. Understanding the level of public support for capital punishment is therefore crucial to death penalty advocacy. The widespread assumption that public opinion favors capital punishment is not always true, however, and certainly not in such stark, simplistic terms. In fact, politicians often rely on opinion polls that suffer from serious methodological problems. Our new background factsheet therefore proposes a critical framework to assess public opinion polls and evaluate the public’s actual level of support for the death penalty. It does so in part by contrasting the most common types of polls with a recent groundbreaking series of more sophisticated opinion surveys that challenge many preconceived ideas about public opinion on capital punishment.

The first aspect to consider is oversimplification. Questions that seek to obtain a “yes” or “no” answer on the issue of capital punishment cannot fully grasp the complexity of individual positions. As several studies in retentionist countries show, not all those who support the death penalty do so under all circumstances, and many would support abolition in some cases. Moreover, it is important to distinguish between those who support a mandatory death penalty from those who favor a discretionary implementation of this practice, since the latter group of people are open to contemplating alternative sentences even for the most severe crimes.

The second aspect to consider is that people are generally misinformed about how the death penalty is implemented, and that, critically, their views tend to change according to the information they have. When confronted with the possibility of wrongful convictions, the lack of effectiveness of executions as a deterrent, and the global trend towards abolition, poll respondents in some cases retreat from their initial support for capital punishment. When confronted with real case scenarios, respondents who in theory support the death penalty for such crimes do not apply it consistently. Furthermore, even among those who support the idea of capital punishment, surveys have found that they do not oppose government abolition plans. In other words, support for the death penalty lacks depth, indicating that the death penalty is an unimportant issue to most people in comparison to other social concerns, such as employment and education. Finally, the evidence also suggests that public support for the death penalty diminishes after abolition, as people experience life in an execution-free society. Our research has not uncovered any cases of major political fallout from championing abolition.

In sum, assessing the public’s level of support for capital punishment requires more than confronting individuals with a single binary and abstract question on whether or not they approve of capital punishment. Individual opinions are malleable and depend on the available information. In order to gain a true understanding of current levels of support for the death penalty, it is essential to engage in more in-depth, nuanced analyses like those conducted in the studies we review. If governments that retain the death penalty intend to exploit public opinion on this issue for political purposes, we should hold them accountable to rigorous polling standards that reflect what people actually think about capital punishment.