Surprisingly, support for capital punishment is rising again

After decades of gradual but steady decline, support for the death penalty has risen this year, bouncing back five points in the annual Pew poll from just two years ago. We’ll get to some likely explanations in a moment, but here’s Pew’s take on it.

Public support for the death penalty, which reached a four-decade low in 2016, has increased somewhat since then. Today, 54% of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 39% are opposed, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in April and May.

Two years ago, 49% favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder, the lowest level of support for capital punishment in surveys dating back to the early 1970s.

While the share of Americans supporting the death penalty has risen since 2016, it remains much lower than in the 1990s or throughout much of the 2000s. As recently as 2007, about twice as many Americans favored (64%) as opposed (29%) the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

While opponents like to point out that support for the death penalty has been falling, it’s never been “unfavorable” in the United States. In fact, it’s only fallen below majority support twice and even then it still maintained plurality support.

Demographic divides exist of course. Republicans are far more likely (77%) to favor it than Democrats (35%). Independents offer a slim majority of support at 52%. Support among men is 61% while a plurality of women (46%) support it. The racial divide parallels the political party breakdown, with whites offering 59% support. Among Hispanics, it’s a plurality of 47% while a minority of blacks (36%) support it.

Why is this? That requires a bit of reading of the tea leaves, but support for capital punishment inversely tracks with the violent crime rate in the country. Back in the early nineties when murder rates were through the roof, so was support for the death penalty. As crime rates steadily fell in the late 90s and 2000s, so did the appeal of capital punishment. But over the past couple of years, murder rates in many major cities have been on the rise, finally ticking the national murder rate upward again last year for the first time in ages.

At the same time, prolific media coverage of terror attacks and mass shootings in the United States have no doubt made people more aware of those awful instances. It seems to be more than a coincidence that now we’re seeing support for the death penalty climbing in response. We are still a society based on law and order, with people who are looking for security for themselves and their families first and foremost. When violent crime seems more common and threatening, we return to harsh tactics in an effort to send a message to those who would kill and maim.