When asked to decide between the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole, six in 10 people chose life sentences, the Gallup poll found. By comparison, 36 percent of people selected the death penalty. Another 4 percent said they had no opinion.
The poll, conducted via telephone interviews in October, is the latest illustration of how public sentiment has changed on the death penalty amid declines in executions and death sentences across the country.
A number of states have abandoned the practice in recent years, with officials pointing to wrongful convictions and the drawn-out, expensive nature of such cases to explain their opposition. Supporters of the death penalty argue that it is a deterrent to severely violent crimes and that officials owe it to victims’ relatives to carry out the sentences already decided by the justice system.
Gallup’s polling history shows how public views have changed: In 2014, when the firm last asked Americans which sentence they preferred, 50 percent picked the death penalty and 45 percent chose life in prison. In earlier surveys from Gallup — which began asking the question in 1985 — the percentage of people picking the death penalty fluctuated at times between a majority and a slight minority, but a majority never backed life imprisonment before now.
Surveys have recently found varying public support for the death penalty when asking respondents if they generally support it as a sentence.
In Gallup’s latest poll, 56 percent of Americans now support the death penalty, while 42 percent oppose it. (Another 2 percent had no opinion.) That split has been relatively consistent in recent years, but it is narrower than it used to be. Five years earlier, 63 percent of people supported capital punishment and 33 percent opposed it.
In 2016, a Pew Research Survey found that support for the death penalty in murder cases had fallen just below 50 percent for the first time since the early 1970s. Another Pew poll last year reported that support was back up to 54 percent.
But polls consistently show that the level of support for the death penalty has declined over recent decades. In the mid-1990s, with the country still reeling from high violent-crime rates, four out of five Americans supported the death penalty.
The Trump administration recently jumped into the debate, scheduling the first federal executions in nearly two decades. Last week, a federal judge blocked those executions, which were set to begin in December, ruling that the Justice Department’s new lethal injection protocol was “not authorized” under federal law. The department is appealing that ruling.
Gallup’s new polling found that “all key subgroups” showed more support for life in prison over death sentences when given a choice between the two penalties, although there remained some splits among different demographic and partisan groups. Women showed stronger support for life in prison (66 percent) than men did (53 percent). Younger people were also more likely to show support for life in prison than older people.
Political and ideological divides were the most stark, echoing previous death penalty surveys. Most people who identified as Republicans (58 percent) supported the death penalty rather than life in prison (38 percent), while Democrats were far more likely to back life sentences (79 percent) over the death penalty (19 percent).
In both cases, Gallup noted, the movement since 2014 has been toward life in prison, with Republican support for it up 9 percentage points and Democratic support up 19 points.
Independents also backed life in prison (60 percent) over the death penalty (35 percent). That marked a reversal from 2014, when the group supported the death penalty (50 percent) over life in prison (44 percent).