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How to Change American Attitudes Towards the Death Penalty

Updated on May 26, 2017
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Arkansas

Kenneth Dewayne Williams, Jason Farrell McGehee, Bruce Earl Ward, Don William Davis, Stacey Eugene Johnson, Jack Harold Jones, Marcel Wayne Williams and Ledell Lee.

In April this year Arkansas planned to execute the above eight men in the space of just 11 days. It is the first time in US history that so many individuals were scheduled to die at the hands of the state in such a short space of time. The executions were sanctioned by the Governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, because the state's supply of midazolam, one of three drugs used in the execution process, was due to expire.

Obtaining medications for use in lethal injections has become increasingly difficult as a result of an EU export ban which prevents supply from European drug companies. That may give some indication as to why Mr Hutchinson took such a 'bold' decision. One can hope that it was not simply down to the expense of wasting stocks.

Unsurprisingly, the announcement that the executions were to go ahead caused outrage among death penalty charities and other human rights organisations. The below tweet from Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, was one example of the backlash that followed:

'The conveyor belt of death which it is about to set in motion proves how out of step Arkansas is with the rest of the world when it comes to state-sanctioned killing'

That may be true in respect of the majority of countries worldwide. Only 23 of 196 nation states carried out executions in 2016. However, the important question is whether a state taking the lives of so many, or any, of its citizens, is out of touch with the attitudes of the the people of that country; i.e. the American public.

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Marshall J

In the 1972 case of Furman v Georgia, Justice Thurgood Marshall made the following statement in his judgement:

"In addition, even if capital punishment is not excessive, it nonetheless violates the Eighth Amendment because it is morally unacceptable to the people of the United States at this time in their history".

The Eighth Amendment prohibits 'cruel and unusual punishment'. Marshall J's assertion was that the death penalty is an example of such punishment because ordinary members of the public consider it to be cruel and unusual.

The statement itself has been the centre of much debate on whether laws must reflect the moral consensus of the people in order to be valid, and is still taught to students of jurisprudence at universities today. What is often not mentioned in these debates is whether the statement is true in fact, in that that the public as a whole do find capital punishment morally unacceptable. The reality is that support for the death penalty in the United States is, and always has been, strong.

Gallup Poll

Between 1953 and 2016 the Gallup Poll has asked Americans the following question: 'Are you in favour of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?'

Support was at its lowest level in 1966 when 42% of those surveyed were in favour and 47% were not in favour. This was the only occasion that opposition outweighed support. From that point on those in favour continually increased to a peak of 80% in 1994. There has been a decline since and in 2016 60% were in favour as a pose to 37% not in favour. However, that still represents a sizeable majority that would see the practice of execution continue.

Marshall J's statement may therefore have been incorrect but it highlights one important fact. The most effective argument in favour of abolishing the death penalty will only arise when a significant majority of the public are against its use.

Public opinion is the main force driving policy decisions and officials in the US are often elected on a stance of 'tough on crime'. It is how George Bush Sr was able to steal the 1988 election from Michael Dukakis. Even democrat Bill Clinton joined the rhetoric in order to boost his popularity and introduced the infamous 1994 Crime Bill, which led to a surge in harsh sentencing.

It is a trend that has seen the average length of prison sentences spiral to incomprehensible levels and resulted in the US having the highest incarceration rate in the world. There are currently over 2,000,000 people locked away in US prisons. This accounts for 25% of the world's prisoners in a country that contains only 5% of the world's population.

Lengthy sentences may be a separate issue, and preferable to capital punishment, but both continue because of a culture in which society is seeking retribution and punishment for offenders instead of rehabilitation. Regrettably there does not seem to be any real hope for progress in this regard with the election of Donald Trump, a long term, outspoken advocate of the death penalty.

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How to Change Attitudes

Campaigns are frequently used to either change individual behaviour or alter the public will. Public will campaigns in particular aim to increase the visibility of an issue, affect perceptions of that issue and engage and motivate people to speak or act. The hope being that the more widespread and vocal support there is for the campaign, the more pressure it will place on policy makers to take note and make changes.

Campaigns against capital punishment are not in short supply. Charities such Amnesty International, Amicus ALJ and Reprieve focus huge resources into raising awareness through their websites, social media, new articles and other media. With social media in particular these charities are able to ensure their message reaches far more people than was previously possible.

Raising Awareness

With incidents such as the occurrence in Arkansas and numerous botched executions that have left inmates in severe pain, capital punishment is a topic that has featured highly in the news over the last few years. Combined with constant campaigns by anti-death penalty charities, awareness of the issue is actually very high at present. That is not to say that more cannot be done. If anything the pressure should be kept on and intensified where possible. However, it is difficult to imagine that there are many people in the US today who have no knowledge of the arguments against the use of this form of punishment.

This rise in awareness has coincided with a slight decrease in those in favour of the death penalty, which may suggest that the more negative attention executions receive, the more peoples' outlook will alter. Even so, the change is marginal and overall attitudes have remained relatively stable for the last decade at between 60 – 65% in favour.

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Education

Education is a crucial part of any movement to change attitudes. It is one thing making the wider public aware of the issue but in order to make any material change to their perceptions then the educational value of the message needs to be clear and effective.

The main focus of much media attention has been on the emotional impact execution has on the people involved. The impact on the families of both victims and convicts is very real and should not be ignored. There is a strong argument that the length of time inmates spend on death row and the constant legal challenges, stays of execution and potential for reprieves has a more negative effect on victims' loved ones that of less controversial life sentences. It can mean that families are forced to relive what happened over and over for decades before finally getting closure.

Emotive considerations such as this do play on the public conscience and some may feel that they are the most effective tool for turning people against the death penalty. However, when the overriding feeling is that offenders should be punished for their crimes in a like for like manner in order for justice to be done and to deter others from doing the same, pulling at heart strings may not be all that beneficial.

It would be good to see more focus on educating people about how constructive capital punishment is as a form a deterring future crime. There is overwhelming evidence that it has little or no effect as a deterrent. The Death Penalty Information Centre produces a breakdown of murder rates per 100,000 in the four US regions of South, Midwest, West and Northeast, alongside the number of executions that have taken place in those regions since 1976. The region by far the most active with the death penalty is the South where there have been 1185 executions in that period. In this region the murder rate remains unfailingly the highest and in 2015 was at 5.9. That is compared to the Northeast where only four executions have taken place in the same timeframe and yet the murder rate is consistently the lowest, with a rate of 3.5 in 2015.

At worst the above statistics could suggest the death penalty itself has a negative effect on murder rates. The argument could be that in a culture where killing is seen as an acceptable way of resolving problems, it is hardly surprising that so many citizens take matters into their own hands. However, there is no clear evidence of a link between offending rates and capital punishment and the unfortunate reality is that when committing a crime, people generally do not take into consideration the consequences of their actions. What it does demonstrate is that social factors such as culture, poverty, inequality, drug use and mental health are far more relevant to murder and general crime rates than any deterrent that the state can put in place.

These types of statistics do not regularly feature in the mainstream media coverage of death penalty issues. If they did, combined with the more sensitive arguments already mentioned, it could present a far stronger case to the public as a whole that capital punishment is not a viable, effective or humane form of punishment, and therefore not something that they should continue to support.

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Politicians

Politicians have a duty to act in the best interests of their electorate. Whilst they may wish to ride waves of moral outrage in order to boost their own popularity, doing so goes against the most important responsibilities of their role. In the United States especially there is a high rate of engagement in politics and the public are more likely to get behind and look up to people in positions of power than their more naturally sceptical European counterparts. Politicians therefore have a more prominent ability to directly impact public opinion on key issues such as the death penalty.

US law makers have access to all the relevant data which shows that the death penalty is ineffective in reducing crime and will be aware of the negative impact its use can have on society. Yet very few have ever openly spoken out against capital punishment, possibly for fear of isolating large sections of their support or appearing weak on crime and punishment.

It is more than possible for these officials to initiate real and lasting change to public perceptions, not only through speaking out but also by changes in the law. The introduction of legislation for equal rights and anti-discrimination have directly helped to change attitudes towards ethnic minorities, homosexuals, the disabled and other groups within society who previously suffered a great deal of stigma. Sometimes the law itself needs to change before the public can accept that their attitudes also need to change.

In Great Britain the death penalty was abolished in 1965. At that time public support for the death penalty was very high. That support did continue for some years after and in the first NatCen British Social Attitudes Report in 1983 75% of people were in favour. However, it has gradually continued to drop until in 2015 support dropped below 50% for the first time. If all US states were to outlaw the death penalty tomorrow it would not likely have an immediate impact on attitudes but over time, as the public become normalised to living in a society where citizens are not put to death it is likely that those attitudes would change in the same way that they have in the UK.

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