Monday, January 26, 2015

Does It Matter Whether People Support the Death Penalty?

Yesterday's Asahi Shimbun reported a drop in support for the death penalty in Japan:

In a sign of wavering support for capital punishment, the first decline in the percentage of Japanese who support the death penalty has been noted, although the support rate remains about 80 percent, according to a Cabinet Office survey released Jan. 24.

The decline in support is the first since the survey, which is conducted every five years, began in 1994, it added.

The high percentage in the survey apparently shows the public's continuing sympathy for victims of violent crime.

Now, 80 percent is still a lot, and we should keep in mind that death penalty law varies fairly dramatically across Asian countries. But here's something interesting: there is considerable support for the death penalty even in countries that abolished it long ago, like the UK. Here's an assortment of studies on public opinion in various abolitionist and retentionist countries.

It's important to point out that, in most abolitionist countries, a majority of citizens was in favor of the death penalty at the time of abolition. I have three thoughts about this:

(1) Abolishing the death penalty is a top-down move, not one that typically calls for broad populistic support. For more on this, read Pieter Spierenburg's The Spectacle of Suffering.
(2) Using the financial crisis to abolish the death penalty nationwide in the United States is possible and worth doing, regardless of popular support. Once it goes away, it won't come back.
(3) Over time, the arc of justice bends toward abolition. Whether or not a country has abolished it, and whether or not its citizens are in the throes of inertia, support wanes. That's a good thing.

Props to Jonathan Marshall for the link.

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