Should the government execute convicted murderers? The morality of the death penalty has been a significant public policy debate for many years in the United States. However, there is evidence that public attitudes on the practice have been changing, as well as public policy itself. Change may be coming to the death penalty.
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Capital punishment has been inflicted on convicted criminals in the United States since the beginning of the republic. Early American leaders opposed “cruel and unusual punishment,” as indicated in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but they did not consider capital punishment itself to fall in that category. However, there was a trend towards states in the late 1700s and early 1800s to reduce the types of offenses that were punishable by death.
It was only in the 20th century that a trend began among states to ban the death penalty. In 1914, only three states had no death penalty. Today, 18 states fall in that category. One-third of those states have abolished the death penalty in the past seven years. In other states, capital punishment is on hold. The governors of Oregon and Washington announced moratoriums on capital punishment, while courts in Arkansas and Kentucky recently ruled invalid current state laws on capital punishment.
Not only have some policymakers changed their minds on the death penalty, but so has the public. Public support for the death penalty dropped through the mid-20th century. By the late 1960s, opponents of the death penalty were as numerous as proponents, according to Gallup polls. Then, increased crime rates, high profile trials, and public concern about law and order drove public support for the death penalty to even greater levels. Through the 1970s and 1980s, public support for the death penalty as punishment for murder rose to a high of 78 percent by the mid-1990s.
Since then, however, the public has shifted once again. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 55 percent of Americans favored the death penalty. That is the lowest level of approval for the death penalty since the 1970s.
Why the change?