IS PUBLIC OPINION A JUSTIFIABLE REASON NOT TO ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY? A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF SURVEYS OF EIGHT COUNTRIES
May 26, 2019:
The purpose of this article is to shed light on the issue of the death penalty from the findings of public opinion surveys carried out in eight retentionist countries (named below) which have continued to maintain that abolition is not feasible because of the depth of public opposition to it. Building on previous research, mostly in the USA, these surveys have attempted to assess not only the size but also the strength of public opinion in favor of the death penalty and the level of actual opposition to its abolition; to what extent opinion is based on sound knowledge about the use and administration of the death penalty; whether citizens are “in general” supportive of capital punishment or their support is conditional on the gravity of the particular circumstances of the offence, including both aggravating and mitigating factors; and what level of support there is for a mandatory rather than discretionary infliction of the death penalty. (Sources: Roger Hood- Berkley Journal of Criminal Law)
The surveys also investigated the extent to which respondents were steadfast in their views or prepared to change them when confronted with new information about the effectiveness of the death penalty and its administration: such as scientific evidence on the general deterrent effects of executions; the availability of satisfactory alternative punishment or social and criminal justice policies; the existence of the possibility of error leading to execution of innocent persons; and the extent to which opinion is affected by awareness of international trends towards abolition in other countries.
In particular, several of the surveys attempted to compare immediate opinion, in response to being asked whether they favor the death penalty or not, with decisions made when they were faced with practical examples of capital cases and asked to decide whether or not they merit the death penalty. This method enables us to test whether or not citizens living in different retentionist countries do make substantially different judgments as regards their level of support for the implementation of capital punishment, such as may constitute, as their governments proclaim, a barrier to its abolition.
The eight public opinion polls from which evidence is drawn all employed a very similar methodology, often asked exactly the same questions and were all carried out within the past decade. The author was responsible for the design, analysis and reporting on two of them and acted as a consultant to the authors of four others. Thus, it was possible to a substantial degree to compare the findings. The countries, and the size of the samples from which evidence is drawn, were: The People’s Republic of China, Trinidad, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Ghana, plus two in which the author had no role: Japan and Belarus.
Taken together, the findings of these surveys of public opinion, conducted in eight retentionist countries, do not support the claim of their governments that support for retention of the death penalty is so strong that it acts as a barrier to its abolition. Nor do the findings support the claim that attitudes towards capital punishment are so variable between states, depending on unique cultural and social influences, that governments are justified in regarding the question of capital punishment as a matter solely to be determined by considerations of the needs of its criminal justice policy after “taking fully into account the sentiments of its own people,” rather than an issue to be determined by adherence to international human rights norms.
In fact, all these surveys have revealed the very limited level of knowledge that most citizens possessed about the death penalty in law and practice when forming their opinion and that only a minority felt “strongly” in favor of it or opposed to its abolition. Opinions in favor were dependent on the belief that the death penalty is administered fairly, without the possibility of error leading to the execution of the innocent. When respondents were asked whether they would favor the death penalty if it were to be proven that innocent persons had been executed, support for it plummeted from nine out of ten to only a third. There was a remarkable degree of concordance between judgments, made by respondents from different countries, on the appropriateness of imposing a sentence of death when they were presented with scenarios of real cases. In every survey where this technique was employed only a minority favored the death penalty when mitigating circumstances were present. Even in cases with aggravating factors, the proportion choosing death was considerably lower than the proportion who had supported the death penalty “in the abstract.” In countries where the death penalty was the mandatory punishment, support for it proved to be very low when respondents were faced with judging cases with differing factual circumstances. They accepted that to treat all cases the same as if they were of equal culpability would amount to injustice.
The strength of opposition to abolition was also questioned when respondents were asked whether they would accept an alternative sentence of life imprisonment, varying in its severity and length, in place of capital punishment. This showed that although death had been regarded as an appropriate punishment in the abstract, it was not the only appropriate punishment that a majority of respondents would accept. In fact, one of the most remarkable findings was that, when asked to compare the likely effectiveness of five social and criminal justice policies aimed to reduce violent crimes leading to death, “greater number of executions” was ranked first by only a small minority and ranked last by the largest proportion of respondents.
Thus, the findings have revealed that the balance of views, values and judgments on the death penalty, made by respondents interviewed in retentionist countries drawn from the Caribbean, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, far from being country-specific and unique, were based on commonly shared norms. Furthermore, in every country, opinions on the death penalty, whether in its favor or opposed to its abolition, were far more nuanced and moderate than governments apparently believed or were prepared to accept. It is not surprising therefore that Frank Zimring and David Johnson concluded, from their reflections on the public opinion survey in China, that:
. . . public opinion seems to tolerate substantial changes in execution policy notwithstanding general support for the death penalty as an abstraction. Changes in government death penalty policy are rarely inspired by public sentiment, and the efforts of government to shift policy are usually tolerated by the citizenry.
Certainly, public opinion should not be employed as a justification for maintaining a cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment.
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