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Public Opinion and Crime - The Death Penalty

percent support punishment consensus

No area of public opinion galvanizes scholars and social scientists more than the death penalty, not only because of its moral and legal complexity and its life-and-death nature, but also because public opinion on the death penalty has exhibited one of the most dramatic shifts in public sentiment ever recorded. Two Gallup surveys from the 1930s (see Warr, 1995, for question wordings) attest to substantial public support for capital punishment in that decade (61 percent approval in 1936 and 65 percent in 1937), a level of support that was still evident in the early 1950s (68 percent in 1953). By the late 1950s, however, public support for the death penalty showed unmistakable signs of erosion, and by the middle of the following decade it had reached its lowest point in modern history (42 percent in 1966), having dropped some 26 percentage points from 1953. During the next two decades, however, public support for the death penalty increased in an unrelenting if uneven progression, and remained above 70 percent (and as high as 80 percent) from the mid-1980s through the 1990s.

Many explanations for this turnabout have been suggested (cf. Ellsworth and Gross). Some believe that large increases in crime rates during the 1960s renewed public demand for the death penalty. Others argue that the topic of crime and punishment became politicized for the first time in the 1968 presidential election. Whatever the reasons may be, there is extraordinary social consensus about the death penalty in the United States today. To be sure, that consensus is not monolithic—support for the death penalty is weaker among African Americans and among young people—but it remains unsurpassed in the history of survey research on capital punishment.

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