Public support for the death penalty for murder has reached its highest point in 28 years as frustration mounts over the nation's inability to stem the tide of violent crime.
Two Americans in every three (66 percent) currently favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, representing the apex of a steady uptrend in this sentiment over the last decade. In 1971, 49 percent of the public approved of capital punishment for murder.
The previous high in support was recorded in 1953 when the question was first asked. In that year 68 percent voted in favor of the death penalty for murder. The lowest point during this 28-year period was the 42 percent recorded in 1966.
Public opinion on capital punishment is conditioned to a great extent by the type of crime involved as well as by the socio-economic background of survey respondents. While a substantial majority of Americans nationwide favor the death penalty for murder, the weight of opinion is opposed to capital punishment for rape, hijacking and treason.
In the current survey, 53 percent of the public votes against the death penalty for rape, 49 percent against death for treason and 68 percent against death for airplane hijacking.
Women are considerably less likely to favor the death penalty for all four crimes studied. Nonwhites are less apt than whites to support capital punishment for murder and treason, but the races hold similar views toward the death penalty in the cases of rape and hijacking.
Analysis of the reasons given by survey respondents both for and against the death penalty for murder indicates considerable ambivalence in public attitudes.
Those in favor of capital punishment frequently cite these arguments: the death penalty deters crime; jail sentences are an economic burden on society; criminals today "get off too easily"; vengeance -- "an eye for an eye"; jail is not rehabilitative.
Those opposed to capital punishment give these reasons: religion forbids it -- the Bible says, "Thou shalt not kill"; the death penalty is not a deterrent; there should be life imprisonment with no parole; people can be rehabilitated; the legal system is not equitable; taking a second life will not solve anything.