Crime and Punishment

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Public attitudes on the issue of the death penalty. A substantial majority of the public supports the death penalty, but there has been a decline in these figures in recent years. Fox News surveys show a drop from 76 percent in May 1997 to 67 percent in February 2000. The change might be a reaction to a series of overturned convictions and a moratorium on executions in Illinois; or perhaps Americans feel less fearful after a decade of declining crime.

In a February 2000 Gallup survey, 91 percent say an innocent person has been sentenced to death in the past 20 years, and an equally overwhelming 95 percent told Newsweek pollsters in June 2000 that DNA testing should be allowed in all cases where it might prove guilt or innocence. Yet only 37 percent in Newsweek's survey supported a moratorium on executions, and in February 1999, Gallup found that 55 percent would support capital punishment even if it didn't deter criminals.

Interestingly, when offered the choice between the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole as a punishment for murder, Gallup researchers found the public almost evenly split - 49 percent favoring execution and 47 percent in favor of prison.

A key division on this question is race. Blacks and Hispanics are far less likely to support capital punishment than whites (68 percent of whites are in favor, compared with 39 percent of blacks and 54 percent of Hispanics). Moreover, blacks have less confidence in the police and courts overall than whites, and so this group may be more skeptical that death sentences are just.

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