After declining considerably in recent years, American support for the death penalty increased this year, fueled by an uptick in political independents backing the practice, according to a new survey.
A Pew Research Center poll released Monday found that 54 percent of Americans are in favor of capital punishment for people convicted of murder, up from the 49 percent the same survey found two years ago.
Support still remains far below the modern highs registered in the mid-1990s, when four out of five Americans backed the death penalty amid surging violent crime rates nationwide. Since then, capital punishment has grown far less popular and has been utilized much less frequently, with states imposing and carrying out fewer death sentences.
The increase in support for the death penalty that Pew is reporting comes as other polls have shown public backing for capital punishment dropping to modern lows.
A Pew survey in 2016 found that support for the death penalty had fallen below 50 percent for the first time since 1971. Gallup reported last fall that its own poll registered 55 percent support, the lowest it had seen since 1972. (A Gallup poll conducted last month found that 62 percent of Americans said the death penalty is morally acceptable, which is up from the 58 percent who felt that way last year.) Pew's polls have found less support overall for the death penalty than some other public surveys, so the shift this year brings Pew's findings more in line with Gallup's.
As recently as 2007, the share of Americans who backed the death penalty -- 64 percent, according to Pew -- was more than double the 29 percent who did not. Since then, the country has undergone a considerable shift on capital punishment, both in terms of support and the way states do and do not carry out death sentences.
There are 19 states that have abandoned capital punishment entirely, and seven of them have done so since 2007, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Other states have issued moratoriums; Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) announced a moratorium in 2015, highlighting the number of people sentenced to death who were later exonerated. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer has questioned whether the death penalty is constitutional.
States that maintain the death penalty and are seeking to execute inmates have struggled to obtain the lethal drugs they need to carry out the procedure, and some have turned to untested combinations or new methods. Drawn-out executions and lethal injections that witnesses have described as appearing to be painful have drawn intense public attention and criticism. Executions also have become less common overall, dropping from 98 death sentences carried out in 1999 to 23 last year. States have executed 11 people so far in 2018, down slightly from the 13 executions by this point last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The overall drop in support for capital punishment has come amid a growing political divide about the issue. While the new Pew survey found that most Republicans back the death penalty (77 percent), that number is far lower among Democrats (35 percent). In 1996, while Republican support was somewhat higher (87 percent), twice as many Democrats agreed (71 percent), according to Pew.
The Pew survey found that while people backing the two major parties have largely not budged on capital punishment since 2016, political independents have shifted, with support rising to 52 percent from 44 percent during that span. Overall, while 54 percent of Americans support capital punishment, 39 percent oppose it, the Pew poll found.
Other breaks remain among American demographic groups, Pew's new survey found. More men support the death penalty (61 percent) than do women (46 percent). White people are much more likely to back it (59 percent) than black (36 percent) or Hispanic people (47 percent).
People who support and oppose capital punishment have found areas of agreement on the issue. Pew had found that in 2015, most Americans -- those in favor of the death penalty and those against it -- agreed that there was some risk that an innocent person could be executed. A Quinnipiac University National Poll this year found that 58 percent of Americans supported death sentences for a person convicted of murder, while 33 percent were opposed; the poll found that when given a choice between a death sentence or life in prison without parole, a slim majority of Americans -- 51 percent -- supported life sentences.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.