NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Is Support For The Death Penalty Waning?

May 22, 2001

The tide of public opinion may be turning against the death penalty -- or at least how it is applied, political observers report. At least two factors may be at play in the turn-about: the steady decline in murder, rape and assault; and the widely-publicized exoneration of some inmates on death row after DNA testing established that they were wrongfully convicted.

Both liberals and conservatives are increasingly questioning capital punishment, say observers, although most Americans continue to support it.

  • The number of people sentenced to death annually in the U.S. has fallen in three of the last four years for which statistics are available -- to 272 in 1999, since peaking at 319 in 1994 and 1995.
  • Public support for the death penalty crested at 80 percent in 1994 and capital punishment is legal in 38 states today.
  • Florida this year became the 15th state to bar the execution of mentally retarded inmates, in legislation now awaiting the promised signature of Gov. Jeb Bush.
  • Even the administration of President George W. Bush is expected to propose sentencing changes later this year.

Before public attention focused on rising crime rates during the 1960s, support for capital punished fell below 50 percent -- and the Supreme Court halted executions across the country in 1972, declaring the death penalty's application to be arbitrary and capricious.

But as public support for the death penalty increased steadily in the 1970s, state legislatures scrambled to pass new death penalty statutes designed to meet the Supreme Court's objections.

Source: John Harwood, "Curbs on Executions Gain Support, Even Among Conservatives," Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2001.

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