Death penalty researchers

Criminologist Amy Anderson and sociologist Phil Schwadel have researched opinions on the death penalty. 

Craig Chandler, University Communication

People's age, race, politics and religion influence opinions about the death penalty in this country. But it may not have the effect you expect. 

It's complicated how those factors work, both over time and with outside influences, to shape views, according to a study published this month by two University of Nebraska professors — a criminologist and a sociologist. 

Age matters, but it's not as simple as the older you get the more you support capital punishment. People in middle age are the most likely to support a death sentence, but that support generally peaks at age 50 or 55, then begins to trend downward.  

Criminologist Amy Anderson and sociologist Philip Schwadel found being in a particular generation doesn't matter, but age and the time period matter a lot. Add to that the effects of political ideology, religious affiliation, gender and race.

The two professors, along with University of Arkansas criminal justice professor Robert Lytle, used data from four decades of the General Social Survey to find what's driving support and opposition to the death penalty.  

Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a ban on executions, approval of people throughout the country has remained greater than 55 percent. But it has dropped from a high of 80 percent in 1995 to 55 percent in 2017.

Last year, after a high-profile campaign, 61 percent of Nebraskans voted to reject the Legislature's repeal of the death penalty. Only in Lancaster County did a greater number of people vote to retain the Legislature's decision.

The 75 percent of voters that supported the death penalty in Madison County, where three bank robbers killed five people in 2002, was one of the strongest areas of rejection of the Legislature's vote to repeal. 

One of the more interesting findings of their recent study, Anderson said in an interview, was the effect on opinion of the violent crime rate. It's one of the largest predictors of why death penalty support changes over time. 

Generally, the murder rate and the victimization rate don't affect support, but more the uniform crime reports compiled from law enforcement data, in which numbers can be driven by enforcement of crime or media coverage. 

The actual crime rate may not change much, but it seems like it is from those enforcement numbers or heightened coverage, Anderson said. 

In Nebraska, reported crime rose 2 percent from 2015 to 2016, but decreased by 3.4 percent in Lincoln, according to the Nebraska Crime Commission. 

Murder and manslaughter decreased 21.5 percent, and robbery went down 5.7 percent. But reported cases of forcible rape increased throughout Nebraska.

After 2001, the U.S. crime rate started tracking downward, and then death penalty opinions for specific groups such as women, nonwhites, Democrats and independents begin trending down, Anderson said. But for groups of whites, Republicans and evangelical Protestants, it remained high. 

For those groups for which support remained high, it could have been a kind of Sept. 11, 2001, effect, Anderson said. She would like to see further study on whether people's sources of news — such as those that hype crime — affect their opinion on the death penalty. 

"You have groups that maybe don't understand the crime rate has actually gone down because from their news coverage it doesn't seem like it," she said. 

Anderson said there's also a hypothesis that as you get older you become more conservative. But the study suggests that peaks toward the end of middle age, then trends back down.

She and the others speculated that support of the death penalty through middle age could result from having a family to protect, but as people age and begin facing their mortality, they may think of death and capital punishment differently.

Other influences they found on how people determine support or opposition to the death penalty were religion, race and political ideology. 

Catholics are less likely and Christian fundamentalists more likely to support capital punishment. Support is higher among males, whites, Republicans and people who identify as conservative. 

Public opinion about the death penalty is important to understand, the authors said, because it influences lawmakers when making policy, and even judges, when they interpret existing policy. 

The U.S. Supreme Court used public opinion, justices said, to assess evolving standards of decency when it abolished the death penalty for people who were 18 or younger at the time of their crimes.

Public opinion is related to legality of capital punishment within states and influences counties in charges, prosecutions and convictions in murder and manslaughter cases, the study said. 

Anderson undertook the study because she has an interest in public perceptions of criminal justice policies, she said.

"Crime's important. We put people in jail. It affects people's lives," she said. "So people's views of how they think policies work is important."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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