For the first time in more than three decades, a majority of Americans favor life imprisonment without parole over the death penalty as a punishment for murder.
A Gallup poll released this week found that 60% of survey respondents said life without parole is the preferable sentence for a person convicted of murder, while 36% said the death penalty is preferable.
This is the first time in Gallup’s 34 years of tracking that respondents have favored life imprisonment over the death penalty. In the 1980s and ’90s, Americans showed a clear preference for the death penalty for convicted murderers.
The latest survey was conducted in October, and polled 1,500 adults living throughout the United States.
The past five years has seen a shift among all major subgroups toward favoring life imprisonment, Gallup said. Two-thirds of women, and a little over half of men surveyed support life imprisonment over the death penalty.
Almost 8 in 10 Democrats favor life imprisonment without parole to the death penalty, while almost 6 in 10 Republicans favor the death penalty.
But while life imprisonment is generally seen as a better punishment for murder, a majority of Americans still approve of the use of the death penalty, Gallup found. Fifty-six percent said they approve of the death penalty as a punishment for murder, and 42% said they oppose its use.
These numbers have remained roughly consistent in recent years, but are down from the 1990s, when up to 80% of Americans voiced approval of the death penalty.
“The percentage of Americans who are in favor of the death penalty, generally, has fallen to 45-year lows,” said Gallup Senior Editor Jeffrey Jones. “And when given an explicit alternative, for the first time in at least 30 years, more say life imprisonment with no possibility of parole is a better punishment for murder than the death penalty.”
Jones noted that state laws have changed alongside public opinion on the death penalty.
“Five states have abolished the death penalty this decade, leaving 29 where it is legal,” he said. “Several states where the death penalty is legal have instituted moratoriums on its use or are considering abolishing it. Many recent cases that have cast doubt on death penalty convictions in light of new evidence may be helping to move public opinion away from it.”
In 2003, the Obama administration placed the federal use of the death penalty on hiatus, while the Justice Department reviewed execution protocols. The move followed a series of rulings against the three-drug cocktail that had been linked to botched executions in several states.
The Trump administration announced over the summer that it is planning to resume federal use of the death penalty. Attorney General William Barr has ordered executions to be scheduled for five inmates on death row, although court challenges have halted the executions from moving forward.
Pope Francis has called the death penalty a rejection of the Gospel and of human dignity, calling on civil authorities to end its use. Last year, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was revised to describe the death penalty as “inadmissible,” citing the increasing effectiveness of detention systems, the unchanging dignity of the person, and the importance of leaving open the possibility of conversion.