Public opinion polls indicate, overall, support of the death penalty has dropped from 80% in 1995 to around 56% in 2015.
Yet, University of Nebraska-Omaha Criminology professor Amy Anderson says support can go up and down.
“One of the things that from year-to-year really affects death penalty attitudes is the crime rate,” Anderson tells Nebraska Radio Network.
Anderson and Nebraska sociologist Philip Schwadel have studied four decades of data from the General Social Survey in an effort to discover what drives public attitudes about capital punishment. Anderson and Schwadel report a person’s age, race, political ideology, and religion are important factors in explaining opinions on the death penalty.
The crime rate, though, can trump them all.
Anderson says the data demonstrates that when the public perceives a rise in serious crime, support for the death penalty rises. It doesn’t have to be a spike in murders. In fact, Anderson says a rise in murders doesn’t seem to push support for the death penalty as much as an overall increase, or the perception of an increase, in crimes such as robbery, aggravated assault, and rape.
As an example, Anderson points to an increase in support for the death penalty during the crack epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s.
Anderson says though all groups show majority support for capital punishment, some groups support it less than others.
“Women support it less. Minorities are less likely to support it than whites. Republicans are more likely to support it than either Democrats or independents,” according to Anderson.
Catholics show less support for the death penalty than do Protestants.
Middle age respondents show the most support for capital punishment with that support peaking between the ages of 50 and 55, then beginning to taper off. Younger people are less likely to support the death penalty.
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [:50]