Perceptions of Law Enforcement Officers on Capital Punishment in the United States

By Hughes, Cyndy Caravelis; Robinson, Matthew | International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, July-December 2013 | Go to article overview

Perceptions of Law Enforcement Officers on Capital Punishment in the United States


Hughes, Cyndy Caravelis, Robinson, Matthew, International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences


Introduction

At first glance, the most recent public opinion polls suggest that Americans remain in favor of capital punishment. For example, a 2011 Gallup Poll found that 61% of Americans answered yes to the question, "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" Only 35% of Americans answered no, and 4% said they did not know or refused to answer. Yet, the percentage of people who say they favor the death penalty is down from the high of 80% in 1994, when opposition was only at 16% (Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 2011, Table 2.51).

Further, we know from careful studies of criminologists and other social scientists that support for capital punishment is not as widespread as believed. Studies show that when Americans are given alternatives to the death penalty such as life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP), support falls to 50% or less (Robinson, 2009). As one example, a 2010 Gallup Poll asked Americans, "If you could choose between the following two approaches-the death penalty or life imprisonment with absolutely no possibility of parole-which do you think is the better penalty for murder?" It found that 49% chose the death penalty, 46% chose LWOP, and 6% said they did not know or refused to answer (Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 2010, Table 2.49).

Research also illustrates that support for capital punishment widely varies based on certain demographic and social variables. For example, the 2011 Gallup Poll referenced above found that the death penalty is more supported by men than women (64% versus 57%, respectively); whites than nonwhites (68% versus 41%, respectively, and only 28% of blacks say they support capital punishment); older people than younger people (e.g., 65% of people 65 years and older support the death penalty, versus only 52% of 18-25 year olds); people earning lower salaries (e.g., 64% of people making less than $20,000 support the death penalty, versus 59% of those who earn $75,000 and over); Republicans than Democrats (74% versus 45%, respectively, and 65% of Independents say they support the death penalty); conservatives than liberals (72% versus 40%, respectively, and60% of moderates say they support the death penalty); and the less educated support the death penalty the most (e.g., 65% of people with a high school diploma or lower support capital punishment, versus 47% of people with post-graduate degrees) (Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 2011, Table 2.52).

The degree to which people support capital punishment is clearly impacted by how much they know about it or don't (Bohm, 2011). For example, a national study of expert opinion of capital punishment scholars-people who study the death penalty for a living and thus are the most informed about it-found that they overwhelmingly do not support the death penalty (Robinson, 2009). Specifically, 80% answered that that they are opposed to capital punishment (only 9% expressed support for capital punishment and 11% said they were not sure). Further, not a single death penalty expert selected the death penalty when asked the question, "What is the most appropriate punishment for someone convicted of first-degree murder?" Every capital punishment expert answered either "life imprisonment without parole" (37%) or "other" (63%, and these scholars then specified various terms of imprisonment in the range of decades). The study also found that 79% of experts answered in the affirmative to the question, "Do you personally favor a temporary halt to executions (moratorium) in the United States while the practice of American capital punishment is studied?" (versus 14% of who answered no and 7% said who they were not sure). And 84% of experts said they thought "states should permanently stop executing convicted murderers" due to "problems that are serious enough to make it unacceptable as a government-sanctioned punishment" (versus 14% of who answered no and 2% who said they were unsure). …

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