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The death penalty/capital punishment

Part 2: Alternatives to death penalty. Church
statements. Polling results: Years 1997 to 2010.

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This essay is a continuation of Part 1.

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U.S. national poll circa 1997:

The Survey Research Program of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas was published in the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It was placed online by SUNY in Albany, NY. The subjects were first asked "Are you in favor of the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?" 73.4% of the subjects said yes. Male, white, middle-aged, middle-class, suburban, mid-west, Republicans respondents tended to be more in favor of capital punishment.

Of that 73.4% who were in favor of the death penalty, the researchers then asked a second question: "If you knew that murderers would be given a true life sentence without the possibility of parole, would you continue to favor the death penalty?" 75.7% still favored capital punishment. Thus, a slim majority (55.6% of the total population) would favor the death penalty over a "life sentence without the possibility of parole." This is higher than the 49% reported in the 1993 national survey. 

The difference in poll results was probably caused by differences in the specific wording of the questions asked. The 1993 poll talked about no parole ever. The implication is that the only way that the inmate would get out of prison would be in a pine box. Other polls indicate that many adults mistrust the penal system; they believe that a "sentence without the possibility of parole"  really means that the inmate would be released on parole after many years.

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U.S. national poll in 2001:

An ABC News/Washington Poll was released on 2001-MAY-2. It shows a public ambivalence towards the continuation of the death penalty. When asked whether or not they supported the death penalty, the public responded 63% in favor. This is a major reduction in support from the 80% level, which was observed seven years previously.

Of even greater potential importance is that if life without parole is offered as an option, response is a statistical dead heat: 46% favor the death penalty; 45% favor life without any chance at parole. The ABC News/Washington Post poll also determined that most American adults believe that: 

bullet The death penalty does not act as a deterrent.
bullet The death penalty is applied unfairly across jurisdictions.
bullet Innocent people are sometimes executed.

51% of the public would support a nationwide moratorium while a commission studies whether the death penalty is being administered fairly. When they were told that just such a moratorium and study was underway in Illinois, their support rose to 57%. 1

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Statement by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:

At their second biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which started at Orlando, FL, on 1991- AUG-28, the ELCA adopted a statement on the death penalty. The ELCA is a mainline/liberal Christian denomination. They state that God authorizes the state to kill individuals when "failure to do so constitutes a clear danger to society." But they ask whether it is possible to administer the death penalty justly. "For the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, following Jesus leads to a commitment to restorative justice" as an alternative to the death penalty. "...It is because of this church's ministry with and to people affected by violent crime that we oppose the death penalty. Executions focus on the convicted murderer, providing very little for the victim's family or anyone else whose life has been touched by the crime. Capital punishment focuses on retribution, sometimes reflecting a spirit of vengeance. Executions do not restore broken society and can actually work counter to restoration." (Emphasis in the original). 2

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Statements by the United Church of Christ:

This denomination is one of the most liberal Christian faith groups in the U.S. In 1969, 1973, 1977 and 1979 the General Synod of the UCC adopted resolutions opposing capital punishment. The church's Office for Church in Society, Commission for Racial Justice and the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries proposed a resolution "Call for abolition of the death penalty." It was adopted by the General Synod in 1999-JUL. The resolution says, in part: 

"WHEREAS, there is no conclusive evidence that the death penalty brings about real healing for victims' families and, in fact, public opinion strongly supports life imprisonment without parole along with some form of restitution for victims' families as a more meaningful gesture toward healing;..."

"THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Twenty-second General Synod of the United Church of Christ reaffirms the long-standing opposition within the United Church of Christ to the death penalty, including a resolution by the Council for Christian Social Action in 1962 and resolutions by the Seventh, Ninth, Eleventh and Twelfth General Synods and urges the abolition of capital punishment."

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Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CUADP):

This is a non-profit agency located in Tequesta, FL. They are opposed to the death penalty, believing:

"that as a society we are obligated to do better than to respond with a gut primal response, regardless of how natural that response may feel...our justice system is currently a retributive justice system which only heightens the pain and deepens the wounds of the families of victims of murder, the families of perpetrators, and the perpetrators themselves." 

They suggest that individuals convicted of capital murder be incarcerated for at least 25 years before being considered for parole. During that time, they should be required to work at "jobs which are not slave-like and allow for some dignity and purpose of life." Part of their earnings would pay for their imprisonment, and another part would go to a restitution fund that would help victims of crime and the families of murder victims. No state has created such a restorative justice program. 3

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U.S. National Poll in 2010:

The Death Penalty Information Center sponsored a national poll of 1,500 registered voters duirng 2010-MAY. The poll was conducted by Lake Research Partners, and has a margin of error of ±2.5 percentage points. They found that 61% of those polled would prefer a punishment other than execution if given a choice:

  • 39% would select life imprisonment with no possibility of parole, and with restitution to the victim's family.
  • 13% would select life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.
  • 9% would select life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.

In states that currently have the death penalty, 38% said it would make no difference when voting for a representative if he or she supported the repeal of the death penalty; 24% would be more likely to vote for the representaitive.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Centresaid:

"For decades, politicians have equated being tough on crime with support for the death penalty, but this research suggests voters want their elected officials to be smart on crime, use tax dollars wisely, and fund the services they care about the most."

Pollster Celinda Lake said:

"We see a real openness to considering life with no possibility for parole as a punishment for murder and a real awareness among Americans of the many problems with the death penalty. It is likely we will see Americans moving away from support for the death penalty as states and local governments grapple with tight budgets and as today's younger voters and Latinos move into the core of the electorate."

Inter Press Service (IPS) reported:

  • Cost emerged as an important concern for a strong majority of respondents. Sixty-eight percent said cost was a very or somewhat convincing argument against the death penalty.

  • Voters ranked emergency services, creating jobs, police and crime prevention, schools and libraries, public health care services, and roads and transportation as more important budget priorities than the death penalty.

  • Hispanic voters were among those most willing to replace the death penalty with an alternative punishment. They responded most strongly to moral objections to the death penalty rooted in faith, as well as the argument that the death penalty is particularly unfair along racial lines.

  • Moral and religious objections to the death penalty were strong among Latino and Catholic voters. 4

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "ABC News/Washington Post poll: The death penalty revised," 2001-MAY-02.
  2. "The Death Penalty," statement by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (1991) at: http://www.elca.org/0 
  3. "CUADP," Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty at: http://abolition.org/0 Their essay on death penalty alternatives is at: http://abolition.org/0
  4. William Fischer, "Poll finds growing aversion to death penalty," Inter Press Service, 2010-NOV-16, at:  http://www.ipsnews.net/

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Copyright © 1997 & 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2010-DEC-08
Author: B.A. Robinson
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