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November 16, 2010

New (biased?) death penalty poll provides more grist for debate

This morning I received via e-mail this press release from the Death Penalty Information Center headlined "Poll Shows Growing Support for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; Capital Punishment Ranked Lowest Among Budget Priorities." Here is how the release starts:

The Death Penalty Information Center today released the results of one of the most comprehensive studies ever conducted of Americans’ views on the death penalty. A national poll of 1,500 registered voters conducted by Lake Research Partners shows growing support for alternatives to the death penalty compared with previous polls.  A clear majority of voters (61%) would choose a punishment other than the death penalty for murder, including life with no possibility of parole and with restitution to the victim’s family (39%), life with no possibility of parole (13%), or life with the possibility of parole (9%).

In states with the death penalty, a plurality of voters said it would make no difference in their vote if a representative supported repeal of the death penalty; and a majority (62%) said either it would make no difference (38%) or they would be more likely to vote for such a representative (24%).

“For decades, politicians have equated being tough on crime with support for the death penalty, but this research suggests voters want their elected officials to be smart on crime, use tax dollars wisely, and fund the services they care about the most.  Capital punishment is not a high priority for voters and is not the ‘third rail’ of politics,” said Richard Dieter, Executive Director of Death Penalty Information Center.

“We see a real openness to considering life with no possibility for parole as a punishment for murder and a real awareness among Americans of the many problems with the death penalty.  It is likely we will see Americans moving away from support for the death penalty as states and local governments grapple with tight budgets and as today’s younger voters and Latinos move into the core of the electorate,” said pollster Celinda Lake.

Lots more details about the poll result and other specifics are available via this DPIC page. Though I am not an expert on polling, based on a quick review of stuff at DPIC, I cannot help but express concern that this latest poll was conduct in a way designed to prompt anti-death-penalty responses.

Specifically, the key question about support for the death penalty sets forth a series of alternatives for what the "penalty for murder should be." Because relatively few of even the most passionate death penalty advocates want all murders of all types always sentenced to death, I am not surprised that this prompt does not get a majority of people expressing affinity for the death penalty. But if the query was recast to ask "what is the maximum penalty that should be legally available for the most heinous and brutal murderers," I suspect the polling result would look very different.

Notably, another recent poll with a seemingly more balanced question reporoted well over 80% support for the death penalty (discussed here).  For this reason and others, I doubt this new DPIC poll will move many politicians (or hearts and minds) on this topic.  Nevertheless, I always find it is interesting to see how committed advocates will try to more the needle on these kinds of criminal justice issues.

November 16, 2010 at 10:43 AM | Permalink

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Comments

There's not a whole lot to say about this poll, except, perhaps, that the DPIC is exploring new ground in embarrassing itself. The dishonesty and intentional avoidance of the main issue is mind blowing. As Doug suggests, the question for assessing support for abolition is not whether the DP is a "low priority." It's whether it should EVER be available. Thus, as Doug notes, the relevant question is "what is the maximum penalty that should be legally available for the most heinous and brutal murderers?" And we already know that. In the McVeigh case, it was slightly over 80%. In the recently completed sentencing phase in the trial of the Petit family child rapist/multiple murderer, it was 78%-15% in favor of the DP.

For years, the DPIC has been misleading the public by trying to portray itself as merely a source of information (thus its name). The only mildly remarkable thing about this new poll is how far it goes toward outing its purchasers as disingenuous.

I guess the years of lying about the "innocence" of Roger Keith Coleman were not enough. The more apt headline for today's press release is, "DPIC, the Beat Goes On."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 16, 2010 11:15:21 AM

Professor Berman, thank you for letting your readers know about this polling research from Lake Research Partners. I am a former litigator who (at one time) defended a man on death row in Alabama. Like you, I acknowledge that I'm not a pollster, which is why it is important that your readers, if interested, visit www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/pollresults and read the questions and answers for themselves.

When offered potential alternatives to the death penalty, voters were willing to consider those alternatives. This was especially true if the money saved was used to fund higher priorities, such as crime prevention. What this means is that the door is open to further discussion about this issue. One thing I found interesting about the poll is that younger voters and Latino voters were especially open to considering alternatives. These are segments of the electorate that are growing, which means the future may look different than it does today. Best wishes, Margot

Posted by: Margot Friedman | Nov 16, 2010 2:03:03 PM

People see what they want to see - including DPIC and including YOU.

Posted by: Anon | Nov 16, 2010 2:09:37 PM

I agree that the questions were carefully chosen to get the answer that they wanted. But don’t DP advocates do the same thing?

It is really, really difficult to design a poll that everyone would agree is neutral. It might be impossible when your organization, by its very nature, is committed to a particular result.

On just about every subject that has ever been polled, results can vary widely with even subtle differences in the way the question is asked. It’s a problem when the pollster is truly neutral as to the outcome, which was clearly not the case here.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Nov 16, 2010 2:22:26 PM

The AngusReid Public Opinion poll was an online poll of "American adults who are Springboard America panelists." I am not sure what a Springboard America panelist is, but I know that there is some debate in the profession about the accuracy and reliability of online polls. In any event, one thing that was interesting to me from the AngusReid poll was that 81% of respondents believed that innocent people had been executed in the United States. This figure (four out of five respondents) strongly suggests that people do not believe that the government is capable of administering a fair and accurate death penalty system. Until the public is given more assurances and confidence, moratoria, like the one in Illinois and the one being discussed in Ohio, will likely continue. Thanks again for spotlighting the Lake Research today. Best wishes, Margot

Posted by: Margot Friedman | Nov 16, 2010 2:25:01 PM

Thanks for your comments, Margot, but I would like to know more about the moratorium that you say is "being discussed in Ohio." I know a member of the state Supreme Court has express interest in such a moratorium, but I have seen little other discussion of this idea. And I know of no state legislator talking up such an idea seriously. Have I missed some news?

Posted by: Doug B. | Nov 16, 2010 4:20:52 PM

Dear Prof Berman,

Thank you for your clear-headed, objectivist evaluation of life and death matters.

Don't let the bleeding hearts and minds and - heaven forbid - the non-existent souls get you down.

Ayn

Posted by: Ayn Rand | Nov 16, 2010 4:49:39 PM

"Move the needle?" Touche.

Posted by: DW | Nov 16, 2010 5:23:47 PM

The Gallup Poll probably has the most reliable indicator of public support for the death penalty. Half the people think it is not imposed often enough and one quarter think it is imposed about the right amount. That is 75% for the present death penalty or tougher. Only 18% think it is imposed too often.

The problem with most death penalty poll questions (including Gallup's standard question and DPIC's poll) is that they imply the respondent must choose one penalty for all murderers. If that were really the question, I would choose LWOP myself. The relevant policy question, though, is what penalty to impose on the worst murderers.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Nov 16, 2010 6:24:48 PM

Doug --

It may well be the case, as Margot says, that a moratorium is "being discussed" in Ohio. Similarly, it would surprise me if it were not the case that, somewhere in Ohio, flying saucers are also "being discussed." The careful wording of Margot's comment is like the careful wording of the poll: Designed to make you think it says something it doesn't really say.

As a result of the election, Ohio will have Republicans in at least these offices: Governor, Attorney General (former Senator Mike DeWine) and heavy majorities in both houses of the state legislature.

With that as the lineup, I think I can say right now where the "discussion" of an Ohio moratorium is going to go.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 16, 2010 6:38:42 PM

Every individual have their own opinion with regards to death penalty. I must say that this will go through a keen debate. But then, what is important is to show much concern that people can still change. Choosing life imprisonment can assure that people despite of what they have done will do something good. They can change. Thanks a lot for this post. I am really informed of the real deal.

Posted by: baby rocking horse | Nov 17, 2010 4:00:56 AM

As more people read about cases such as Claude Jones and others in Texas (see link below) then so too will the doubts, debate and abolition spread.
standdown.typepad.com/weblog/2010/11/claude-jones-shoe-drops.html (click on my name)

Posted by: peter | Nov 17, 2010 4:32:02 AM

peter --

We keep going over and over the same things. Both the Angus and Gallup polls show that the public ALREADY believes that an innocent person has been executed (and executed relatively recently), and STILL overwhelmingly supports the DP.

What abolitionists simply refuse to come to grips with is that the public is not going to reject an earned penalty in case X because it was (allegedly) misused in unrelated case Y. The public full well knows that there are cases where (1) there is no sane question of guilt and (2) the crime is grotesque beyond words (the recent Petit murders being a good example). As long as that is the state of play -- in other words, forever -- support for the DP will remain strong and stable, as Gallup reports has been the case for years, http://www.gallup.com/poll/144284/support-death-penalty-cases-murder.aspx.

Abolitionists bolster themselves with cheerleader talk about how the DP is in decline, but it's just not true according to the numbers. Not only has support been steady according to Gallup; support has dramatically INCREASED from what it was when I was in college. And if abolitionism were indeed on the march, it would not need to put out a dishonest and obviously skewed poll like the one featured here. Instead it could cite a neutral source, not one that it has bought, paid for and massaged.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 17, 2010 9:04:53 AM

Every single "quantitative" or "objective" study/report/poll in this area is riddled with advocacy and manipulation. Interesting that you choose to emphasize that point so strongly here, when I seem to remember you noting the release of several other arguably biased/slanted studies with no similar editorializing.

Posted by: Anon | Nov 17, 2010 11:24:57 AM

Bill - the FACTS are that
1. the number of death sentences have been steadily falling (less than half the number in 2000), partly because alternative sentences are being favored by juries.
2. only 11 states have executed anyone in 2010 (to date)- ie barely 20% of states)
3. 42% of executions in 2010 to date were in Texas
4. two states have abolished the death penalty recently
5. three states - New Jersey (2007), New York (2007), and New Mexico (2009) have abolished the death penalty in recent years.
If that doesn't add up to a decline, I don't know what does! There is more to democracy than public opinion polls conducted by Angus and Gallop.

Posted by: peter | Nov 17, 2010 12:07:40 PM

sorry, ignore 4. which was amended by 5.

Posted by: peter | Nov 17, 2010 12:09:39 PM

peter --

No state has abolished the DP by popular referendum; the three states you cite had had few if any executions for years if not decades before formal abolition (meaning that the actual state of play did not change); in fact there were more executions last year than the year before; the DP has expanded outside the South (recently imposed in Connecticut, plus recent executions in Ohio, Washington and Utah).

No serious person wants the DP to be frequent, and it doesn't bother me a bit that it isn't. But few serious people want it to be NEVER, EVER and that is where abolitionism runs aground.

As long as it takes a rigid, absolutist stance, it just isn't going to get traction in this country. The DPIC can put out this phony poll and hold a press conference, but it can't make the Petit murders go away.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 17, 2010 12:33:30 PM

@Peter
The decline in carrying out death sentences outside the South has nothing to do with a decline in support for the death penalty. It's because many states' appeals courts are structured so that almost no sentences are carried out. Look at Pennsylvania, over 300 death sentences handed down since the 70's and not one involuntary execution since. The death penalty is extremely popular in the state, so that's not the problem. The problem is the incredibly low standard for certificates of appeal-ability and the anti-death penalty stances of various judges.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Nov 17, 2010 4:20:18 PM

Kent - "The relevant policy question, though, is what penalty to impose on the worst murderers."

Aside from the many other arguments for abolition - in the absence of uniform agreement on a definition of the "worst murderers", your concern to affirm the death penalty as an option is grotesque. No doubt you and others will happily provide a list which you personally identify, but the reality on the ground is that the death penalty in general is applied arbitrarily according to the state and particular prosecutor. That is not Justice but anarchy.

Posted by: peter | Nov 17, 2010 5:52:32 PM

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