Saturday, June 03, 2006
Every so often, the gallop poll asks its respondents about the death penalty, and the results are always illuminating. Gallop's most recent results show, what I think demonstrates the big disconnect in our thinking in America about the death penalty.
When asked straight up if they support the death penalty about two-thirds (65%) of respondents answer yes. This number hasn't really changed in the last twenty years. But it's when we get into the next questions that things get interesting. When asked which they would favor, the death penalty or life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for murder, LWOP actually leads executions by a statistically insignificant 1 % (48% to 47%). What this says is that the vast majority of Americans don't want the death penalty; they want to be safe i. e. not have convicted murderers back out on the street, which is a perfectly understandable sentiment. So when they're offered the possibility of LWOP, most find that acceptable.
Then, for me, things get really interesting, in the next two items:
1) the majority of Americans think an innocent person has been executed in the last five years.
2) only one in five Americans think that the death penalty serves as any kind of a deterrent.
So most Americans think that innocent people get executed and that executions don't deter other murders. So why would anyone still support the death penalty? Two answers spring to mind. The first is ignorance. Perhaps everyone doesn't know just how serious the problem with convicting the innocent is, or that the death penalty is extremely economically biased, or that it targets the mentally ill. One of the most common arguments made against LWOP is that it costs tax payers too much. Of course, this argument doesn't stand up to the facts. Every legitimate study finds that the cost of the death penalty is far greater than that of LWOP.
The other reason, is strict vengeance. This is the justification that we can't argue with as easily. The drive for vengeance is not a rational one, and the rational arguments just discussed make little headway. What we can say is that emotions like vengeance are a very poor basis for public policy. So let's talk about the public policy. And this one simply fails the test. The good news in the poll is that more and more Americans are realizing this.