The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For the first time in almost 50 years, less than half of Americans support the death penalty

An arm restraint in Oklahoma’s execution chamber. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

The death penalty in America is continuing its steady decline. The United States is on pace to carry out fewer executions this year than it has in a quarter-century, and the number of states putting inmates to death and handing down fatal sentences have both plummeted. Yet through it all, one group has maintained its support for the death penalty: the American people. Polls have shown that while approval of capital punishment has declined since peaking two decades ago, a solid majority of people have still said they are in favor of the death penalty.

Until now, at least. The share of Americans supporting the death penalty had fallen to its lowest levels in more than four decades, dropping below 50 percent for the first time since Richard Nixon was in the White House, according to a new Pew Research Survey.

The new results highlight a dramatic gulf in the way Americans view capital punishment, with an acute gap breaking down along fault lines of age, race and gender. And as the country approaches Election Day, the biggest division can be found between different political parties, a dramatic change from two decades ago, when the number of executions was rising and support for the death penalty was at its modern peak.

Still, the biggest news in Pew’s survey is that less than half of Americans favor capital punishment for people convicted of murder. The last time the number was so low was in November 1971, according to Pew’s records.

The number has fallen since just March 2015, when 56 percent of Americans backed the death penalty. In that earlier survey, a majority of Americans acknowledged that they agreed there was a risk that an innocent person could be put to death under the current system.

Public backing for the death penalty reached its apex in the early 1990s, when about 8 in 10 Americans said they supported the death penalty. At the time, the violent crime rate and murder rate alike were spiking in the United States, though both have since declined dramatically. Despite an uptick in violent crime and murders last year, these numbers still remain far below what they were during that period.

Gallup has found higher levels of support in its polls than Pew, reporting last year that 6 in 10 Americans backed the death penalty, a larger percentage than Pew found. CBS News, in a poll last year, found the same share of people backing the death penalty as Pew had reported. But Gallup and Pew, along with other polls, have been consistently seeing a big decline in public support for the death penalty over the past two decades.

Still, even with the overall drop in support found by Pew, there are some groups still more likely to back the death penalty. Men are more likely to favor it (55 percent) than women (43) percent. People between the ages of 18 and 29 are more likely to oppose capital punishment than support it; in every older age group, at least half said they supported the practice. White people are almost twice as likely (57 percent) as black people (29 percent) to support it. A little more than 1 in 3 Hispanic people support it (36 percent), and half oppose it (50 percent).

The U.S. saw fewer executions and death sentences in 2015 than it has in decades

A sharp and evolving split can also be seen between people based on their political leanings. Two decades ago, big majorities of Republicans (87 percent), Democrats (71 percent) and independents (79 percent) all supported capital punishment.

All of these numbers have dipped, but by different measures. Republican support has fallen 15 points, to 72 percent this year, while support from Democrats has plummeted by half, falling to 34 percent over that span. Independents are now slightly more likely to oppose capital punishment (45 percent) than support it (44 percent), after more than half of them supported it a year ago.

This drop in public support comes amid a drop in executions and a broader retrenchment in capital punishment that is playing out from coast to coast. Most states still allow the death penalty, but for some of these places it remains on the books without remaining in use. Governors in Oregon and Washington have imposed moratoriums, as has the governor in Pennsylvania, which has one of the country’s largest death rows and no willingness to carry out any of these sentences. In other cases, even in ruby-red states, death penalty support is not a given, and some Republican lawmakers have pushed to get rid of the practice.

Even the handful of states that both have the death penalty and an interest in carrying out executions are facing challenges because of a shortage of the drugs used for lethal injections. This issue has forced these states to reconfigure the chemicals they use and scramble to obtain the drugs, an increasingly difficult proposition. Ohio is in the midst of what will be at least a three-year hiatus from executions while it tries to find lethal injection drugs.

In other cases, states eager to carry out executions have struggled against impositions both external and self-imposed.

Florida has the second-biggest death row in the country (trailing only California), but the state remains on the sidelines. The state’s Supreme Court is considering what to do with the sentences of nearly 400 death row inmates after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down its death-sentencing system as unconstitutional this year. (That statute was later rewritten.) Oklahoma has still not resumed executions since using the wrong drug in a lethal injection last year and nearly using the wrong one again, mistakes that were outlined by a scathing grand jury report.

Meanwhile, so far this year only five states have carried out executions. Two of them — Texas and Georgia — have accounted for 12 of the 15 executions this year. The country’s last execution was in July. And so far, no state appears to be immune to these national trends: Even Texas, far and away the country’s death-penalty leader, last carried out an execution in April. Since that time, it has seen several executions stayed or delayed.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Further reading:

‘It was fundamentally unfair.’ A prosecutor apologizes for his role in putting an innocent man on death row

Most Americans agree that an innocent person might get put to death

Supreme Court Justice Breyer: California embodies the death penalty’s ‘fundamental defects’

Alabama Supreme Court says state’s death penalty system is constitutional